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BIRDS IN FLIGHT 



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Kingfisher and Young 






BIRDS IN FLIGHT 



W. P. PYCRAFT 

Zoological Department, British Museum (Natural History). 

Fellow of the Zoological Society of London. 

Hon. .Member of the American Ornithologists' Union. 

Associate of the Linnean Society. 

Member of the Marme Biological Association of the United Kingdom. 

Member of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 

Author of ■■ .\ History of Birds," "The Infancy of Animals," " The Courtship 
of Animals," " The Sea-shore." Etc., Etc.. Etc. 



Illustrated by 

ROLAND GREEN, F.Z.S. 



LONDON 

GAY & HANCOCK LIMITED 

34 HENRIETTA STREET, COVENT GARDEN, W.C.2. 
1922 

All Rights Reserved. 






CONTENTS. 



CHAPTER 



I. Concerning Wings - - - - 1 

What a wing is — The quill feathers and their function — 
The skeleton of the wing — The muscles of the wing — 
The great air-chambers of the body — The Bat's wing 
— The wing of flying Dragons — The wings of Dragon-flies 
and beetles. 

II. The First Bird . . . . 15 

The ancestors of birds — The first known bird and its 
rriany remarkable features — The gradual evolution of the 
birds of to-day. 

III. The Sizes and Shapes of Wings and 

their relation to FHght - - 21 

The evasiveness of flight — The size of the wing in relation 
to that of the body — Noisy flight — " Muffled " flight — 
The swoop of the sparrow-hawk — The " flighting " of 
ducks — The autumn gatherings of starlings and swallows — 
" Soaring " flights of storks and vultures — The wonderful 
" sailing " feats of the albatross — The "' soaring " of the 
skylark — The " plunging " flight of the gannet, tern, and 
kingfisher. 

IV. Modes of Fhght - - . . 35 

The movements of the wing in flight — Marey's e.xperi- 
ments — Stopping and turning movements — Alighting — 
"Taking off" — Hovering — The use of the tail in fUght 
— The carriage of the neck in flight — And of the legs — 
The flight of petrels — The speed of flight — The height at 
which birds fly — Flight with burdens — Experiments on the 
sizes of the wing in relation to flight — Flight in " troops." 



CONTENTS— continued. 



V. Courtship Flights - - - - 53 

The wing-play of black-game and grouse — The " musical 
ride " of the snipe — The " roding " of the woodcock — 
The musical flights of redshank and curlew — The " tumb- 
ling " of the lapwing — The raven's somersaults — The 
courting flight of the wood pigeon — The mannikin's 
" castanets " — Wings as lures — The strange pose of the 
sun-bittern — The " wooing " of the chaffinch and the 
grasshopper-warbler — Darwin and wing-displays — The 
wonderful wings of the argus-pheasant. 

VI. How to tell Birds on the Wing - 71 

The small perching-birds and the difficulty of distinguish- 
ing them — The wagtails — The finches — The buntings — 
The redstart-wheatear, Stonechat — The thrushes — The 
warblers — The tit-mice — The nuthatch, and tree-creeper 
— The spotted flycatcher — The red-backed shrike — 
Swallows, martins, and swifts — The night-jar — Owls — 
Woodpeckers . 

VII. How to tell Birds on the Wing - 97 

{continued) 

Falcons — Golden eagle — Harriers and sparrowhawk — The 
heron — The cormorant, shag, and gannet — The petrels — 
Guillemots, razorbills, and puffins — The ducks — The 
great crested grebe and dabchick — The pigeons — The 
" plover tribe " — The gulls and terns — The game birds. 

VIII. The Wings of Nestling Birds - - 117 

The wing of the unhatched bird — Of the coots and water- 
hen — The hoatzin's wings — The wing of Archieopteryx 
— Moulting — The nestling game-birds and ducks — 
Teaching the young to fly. 

IX. FHghtless Birds - - - - 127 

The steamer duck — The owl parrot — The flightless grebe 
of Titicaca — The dodo and solitaire — The ostrich tribe — 
The penguin's wings. 



ILLUSTRATIONS 



Coloured Plates 



Kingfisher and Young 




Frontispiece 


Jays 




. Facing Page 6 


Pheasants 




95 


, 22 


Brown Owl 




,, , 


3» 


Wild Duck 






38 


Woodcock carrying Young 




• 


54- 


Herons . . 






, 64 


Chaffinch and Young 




,. 


76 


Gold-crested Wrens . . 






86 


Great Spotted Woodpeckers 




5» 1 


92 


Some Types of Wings and Tails 




„ 


, 102 


Grouse . . 




,, , 


118 



Black and White Plates 



Swans, Heron, Geese 

Blackgame 

Ducks 

Lapwings 



Facing Page 4 
26 
42 



ILLUSTRATlONS-conttnmd 



Some Common Birds 

Some Types of Birds in Flight 

Birds of Prey . . 

Flightless Birds 



Facing Page 72 

80 

,, ,, 106 

130 



Line Illustrations 



Wings 

Arch^opteryx and Pterodactyles 

Bat, Beetle, Dragon Fly, etc 

Peregrine chasing Duck 

sunbittern displaying 

Drumming Snipe 

Buzzard Soaring 

Gulls 

Vultures 



13 
19 
33 
51 
69 

95 
115 
125 

133 



Preface. 



THERE are hosts of people who have a genuine love of our native 
birds without yearning to possess their skins, or desiring to acquire 
the reputation of being " Ornithologists." They would call them all 
by name if they could, but seek, alas ! in vain, for some book wherein they 
will find some magic phrase which will enable them to identify every bird 
they meet by the wayside. 

Most of our native birds have learnt that " discretion is the better 
part of valour," when in the neighbourhood of Man. Hence one gets but 
too often no more than a fleeting glance at their retreating forms, which, 
from frequent encounters, have become familiar, yet they leave no more 
than a vague image in the memory. " What bird was that ? I have 
often seen it but have never succeeded in taking it unawares." This is a 
question, and its comment, often put to me. 

Those who are in this quandary, and they are many, are always hoping 
to fmd some book which will enable them to correctly name the retreating 
forms. That book will never be written. In the following pages an attempt 
is made to aid such enquirers, and at the same time the difficulties of the 
task are pointed out. 

It is hoped, however, that this attempt will find a welcome among 
those for whom it is made. If it helps them to understand something, at 
least, of the absorbing and fascinating problems which the study of flight 
in the animal kingdom presents, it will at least have served some useful 
purpose. 

The pursuit of the flying bird will inevitably stimulate a desire to 
know more about the bewildering changes of plumage presented at different 



seasons of the year, as well as by the striking differences which often distin- 
guish the two sexes, and the immature birds. The endeavour to satisfy this 
desire will open up a new world. Those who would pass to this knowledge 
should possess themselves of the " Practical Handbook of British Birds." 
Though most severely practical, and designed for the serious student alone, 
even the beginner will find interest in the description of these several 
plumages, and much else beside that it is essential to know. 

Now that the study of fhght is so much to the fore, some may turn 
to these pages in the hope of gaining useful information on the theme of 
mechanical flight. Some help they may find. But it was not for this 
that they were written. The flight of an aeroplane and the flight of a bird 
have little in common — at present ; though something may be learned 
by the study of gliding flight and soaring, which of course have their place 
in this book. But anatomical details and mechanical formulae, necessary 
to the serious student of flight, would have been entirely out of place here, 
and they have been omitted. 

My task has been by no means easy. But it has been enormously 
helped by the extremely skilful and beautiful work of the artist, Mr. Roland 
Green. Where birds are concerned, few artists in the past, and very few 
in the present, have shown any ability to combine accuracy in drawing 
with ingenuity of composition and faithfulness in colouring. Mr. Green 
has shown this rare combination ; his coloured plates and line-drawings 
speak for themselves. 

W. P. PYCRAFT. 



London, 

September, 1922 



CHAPTER I. 



Concerning Wings. 

" Divinity within tliem breeding wings 

wherewith to scorn the earth." — Milton. 

What a wing is — The quill feathers and their function — The skeleton of the 
wing — The muscles of the wing — The great air-chambers of the body — The Bat's 
wing — The wing of flying Dragons — The wings of Dragon-flies and beetles. 



THE flight of birds has always aroused man's envy and 
stirred his imagination. David longed for the wings of a 
dove : the writer of the Book of Proverbs tells us that " the 
way of an eagle " surpasses his vmderstanding. Icarus, spurred 
on by dire necessity, actually, we are told, contrived to fly 
— but his maiden effort ended in disaster ! To-day we have, 
in a sense, succeeded where he failed. But only because we have 
given up the idea of flight bv personal effort, and make our 
aerial journeys in a flying machine. 

That we owe much of our success to a study of the flight of 
birds is common knowledge, but the machine which has evolved 
as a consequence of this study pursues its way through the air 
after a very different fashion from that of the birds, for its vast 



body is thrust, or drawn, through the air by means of a propeller, 
driven at incredible speed, its immobile wings sustaining the 
weight. The wings of the bird, on the other hand, not only 
lift the body from the earth, but they sustain it in the air by their 
marvellously complex movements. And this is true, in varying 
degrees of bird, and bat, and butterfly : of dragon-fly and beetle. 

Even they who must perforce dwell in crowded cities see daily 
the miracle of flight performed. For even here sparrows and 
pigeons, at least, are everywhere, and it is just because this is 
so, just because they have become so " common-place," that 
their very presence escapes notice. Yet the wonder of their 
movements in the air might become a never-ending source of 
delight if only we went about our business with open eyes and 
minds alert. 

Watch the wary sparrow spring from the ground and dart 
across the road, or up to the nearest house-top. How is it done 
with such incredible speed and accuracy ? 

To understand even the broad principles of flight, it is 
necessary to reahze, at the very beginning, that the wing, in the 
case of the bird, or the bat, is a specially modified fore-leg. So 
also is the human arm and hand. But its transformation has not 
been so drastic as that of the bird, or the bat. Wherein the hand 
has been, as it were, completely re-modelled to fulfil the 
pecuHar and complex functions demanded of it. 



How should one describe the wing of a bird, as one sees it in 
flight ? 

The Dictionary, obscure and inaccurate as Dictionaries 
usually are, defines a wing as " the organ of a bird, or other animal, 
or insect, by which it flies — any side-piece." Might not the 
impression one gathers of a wing, during flight, be defined as of a 
lateral extension of the body, presenting a relatively large 
surface, but having no appreciable thickness ? That surface, 
examined in a dead bird, is seen to be formed, for the most part, 
of a series of parallel, tapering, elastic rods, fringed with an 
innumerable series of smaller, similar, but much shorter rods, 
closely packed, and linked together by some invisible means to 
form an elastic web ? These we call the " quill," or " flight- 
feathers." The rest of the wing, and the body itself, is clothed 
with precisely similar structures, differing only in their smaller 
size. We call them " feathers " commonly, without realizing that 
they are the " Hall-mark " of the bird, for no other creature has 
ever been similarly clothed. 

These quill-feathers play such a tremendously important 
part in flight that their arrangement, and relation to the under- 
lying skeleton must be carefully examined by all who would 
understand the flight of birds. To begin with, then, note that they 
are so arranged as to overlap one another, the free edges of the 
quills facing the outer edge of the wing. Only by this arrange- 



ment would flight be possible, for on the upstroke of the wing 
through the air the quills act like the shutters of the sails of a 
windmill, allowing the wind to pass between them and so relieving 
pressure on the uplifting wing-stroke. On the down-stroke, the 
opposite effect is produced. The full force of the stroke is 
conserved, because, owing to the overlap, the several feathers 
are now pressed closely together to form an impervious sheet. 
How are they fixed to the skeleton ? To see this all the 
smaller feathers and the muscles, or " flesh " of the wing must be 
removed. It will then be found that the flight-feathers 
are divisible into two series. One, widely spaced, runs 
along the upper surface of the fore-arm : the other, closely 
packed, along what answers to the back of the hand. In 
effect this is but a single rod of bone, but it is composed of three 
elements, answering to three of the digits of the human hand — 
the thumb and the first and second fingers. But they are 
scarcely recognizable as such, for the thumb is reduced to a mere 
stump, while the two fingers have become welded together. 
The third finger, indeed, has become reduced to the palm-bone, 
and a short stump answering to the first finger joint. To this 
frame-work, which can be folded up into the shape of a Z when 
the bird is at rest, the quills are fixed by their base by means of 
slender, but very strong elastic tendons. In birds which have 
a long upper arm bone, like the Albatross, Gull, or Heron, there 



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Swans. IIekon. 

Geese. 



is a third series of long, almost " quill-like " feathers running 
from the elbow to the body, thus closing up what would other- 
wise be a gap between the wing surface and the body, rendering 
flight impossible. 

The most important muscles of the wing are those which have 
to provide the power for the down-stroke of the wing. And 
these are the "pectoral " or " breast-muscles " — which form such 
dainty meat in a roast fowl. Owing to their great bulk the breast- 
bone itself would be insufficient to afford them attachment. 
This is furnished by the development of a deep, median keel, 
so that the breast-bone of a bird, such as a pigeon, bears a fanciful 
resemblance, when seen in profile, to the hull of a ship — unusually 
shallow — with a very deep keel. The front end of the breast- 
bone supports two slender rods of bone, and these in their turn 
support the long, sword-like blade-bone, and the " merry-thought." 

The general appearance of this frame-work for the support 
of the wing and its muscles can be seen in the adjoining illustra- 
tions. But it must be remembered that in their relative sizes 
and disposition these various parts present a very considerable 
range of differences. That these differences are correllated 
with different forms of flight goes without saying, but, be it noted, 
no one, as yet, has attempted to discover in what way they are 
related. Some of the readers of this book may, perhaps, be 
tempted to try and solve the problems which these differences 



present. To begin with, a collection of breast bones of different 
species of birds with their attached shoulder-girdles should be 
made, and these should be studied together with careful 
observations of the flight of the living bird. So far only a 
few comparisons of this kind have been made. 

It must not be supposed that the whole secret of flight in 
birds is concentrated in the skeleton of the breast-bone and its 
shoulder-girdle, and the muscles attached thereto. But those 
who would investigate the modifications of the rest of the body 
which have taken place in harmony with the requirements of 
flight, must turn to more learned treatises. There is, however, 
one point which demands notice here. And this is the popular 
belief that birds have the power of materially reducing their 
weight when on the wing by drawing air into their lungs, and 
storing it in large air-chambers enclosed within the body. 
These chambers are indeed concerned with the needs of flight. 
But the precise part they play is yet to be discovered. They 
certainly have no effect of rendering the body lighter. So far as 
our knowledge goes it would seem that they act as regulators 
of the temperature and as reservoirs of breathing air, during 
the strenuous efforts of flight. 

It is a mistake to suppose that it is unnecessary to consider 
other kinds of flight when studying that of birds. Even those 
who are not interested in the abstruse problems of the mechanism 




Jays 



of bird's flight, will find that comparisons made between birds, 
bats, butterflies and beetles when on the wing, are immensely 
interesting, and help to bring out the peculiarities of each. 

During the twilight hours of a still summer evening one may 
compare, with advantage, the rushing swoop of the screaming 
swift, borne with lightning speed upon long, ribbon-like pinions, 
with the curiously erratic flight of the woolly bat with beaded 
eyes, who has ventured abroad for his evening meal. One 
cannot but feel astonishment at the marvellous dexterity with 
which he twists and turns, now shooting up into the skv, now 
darting downward. What bird can beat him, or even match 
him, in the art of doubling back on his tracks ? And one can put 
his skill at lightning turns to the test if one attempts to catch 
him in a butterfly net. Often indeed have I attempted this 
feat, but never yet with success. 

In the glare of noon-day this aerial athlete may perhaps be 
found in a deep slumber, hanging head downwards behind the 
shutters of a cottage window, or in some crevice of a barn-roof. 
Gently seize him and as gently stretch out his wing. The 
moment one opens it one sees that it is constructed upon a 
totally different plan from that of a bird. In the first place a 
thin membrane, or fold of skin is seen to take the place of the 
series of quill-feathers found in the wing of the bird. In the 
second it will be found that this membrane is stretched between 



a series of long and very slender bony rods. These are excessively 
attenuated fingers. And if the hinder border of the wing- 
membrane be traced inwards it will be found to be attached 
to the hind limb. In some species it will be found that this 
membrane passes backwards beyond the leg to attach itself to 
the tail. Here, then, is a wing as efficient for its purpose as that 
of a bird, but constructed on a totally different plan. 

Ages ago, before even the birds or the beasts had appeared 
on the earth, the winged dragons, which the Men of Science call 
Pterodactvles, held the proud position of being, not only the 
first, but the only creatures blessed with a backbone that could 
fly. Their wings resembled those of the bats, but differed in this, 
that instead of the wing-membrane being stretched between all 
the fingers, leaving onlv the thumb free, it was attached only to 
the fifth finger, leaving the remaining fingers free, and these were 
reduced to mere vestiges. As with the birds, the breast-bone 
was very broad and was furnished with a keel, while in the bats 
it takes the form of a jointed rod, down which no more than 
a slight keel is ever developed. 

But millions of years before the Flying-dragons, birds, and 
bats came into being, the stupendous problem of flight had been 
solved. Far away in the distant Devonian Epoch, when the 
distribution of land and water over the earth's surface was 
totally different from that of to-day, dragon-flies and caddis- 



flies disported themselves in the summer sun, amid landscapes 
that would seem strange to our eyes. For there were no trees 
and flowering plants, such as we know. 

The dragon-flies of that remote epoch were verv like those of 
to-day, whose dancing flights and graceful, swooping movements 
are such a delight to watch by reed-fringed pools, or river-banks, 
during the sweltering days of summer. This flight is very 
different from that of a bird, though it would be hard to say 
precisely in what it differs. But we have no such difficulty in 
regard to the broad outlines of the mechanism of such flight. 
To begin with there are two pairs of wings, and these appear to 
be fashioned out of some curiously gauze-like material, a sort of 
mesh-work tissue, often strikingly coloured. And they are 
obviously driven after a very different fashion from those of the 
bird. For in the bird they are moved by quivering muscles, 
attached to a bony, internal skeleton. In the dragon-fl\' — as 
with all insects — the hard skeleton, composed of a material 
known as " chitin," forms the outside of the body and encloses 
the muscles. Finally, for we may not dwell very long over this 
aspect of flight, it is clear that the wings cannot have been derived 
from modified fore-legs, like those of the bat, or the bird. 
Rather, it would seem, they have developed out of plate-like 
breathing organs. 



The restful twilight hours of summer tempt not onlv bats 
from their hiding places, but a host of other winged creatures 
which are rarely to be seen, or heard, during the glare of noon. 
Among these is the lumbering dor-beetle, who, with lazy drone 
steers clear of solid objects only with difficulty. Many, indeed, 
are his failures. He and his kin are no match for bats and owls, 
who find them juicy morsels ! On the next opportunity catch 
one and examine him. His wings are curiously interesting. There 
are the usual two pairs : but the fore-wings have been changed to 
serve as covers for the hind-wings. During flight they are 
spread outwards, and indirectly, no doubt, assist flight. But the 
hind-wings are the real propellers. And it will be noticed that 
when not in use they can be folded up in a perfectly wonderful 
manner, so as to lie completely underneath the fore-wings, or 
" elytra," so that when the creature is crawling it appears to be 
wingless. 

Now compare these with the transparent wings of the bee, 
or the gorgeously scale-covered wings of the butterfly. It is 
well worth while. If this examination be done very carefully, 
and with the aid of a magnifying glass, it will be found that the 
fore and hind wings are yoked together in the wing of the bee, 
by a delicate mechanism of hooks. In the moths, but not in the 
butterflies, a bristle, or sometimes two or three bristles, serve 
the same purpose. Further, in the case of the bee it will be found 



lo 



that the fore-wing, when at rest, is folded longitudinally back 
upon itself. 

Finally, turn to the flies. Herein it will be seen that there 
is but a single pair of wings, the hind pair having become reduced 
to mere stumps, known as " balancers." 

Much, very much more, might have been said of these wings : 
but our conversation is of birds. We cannot, however, properly 
appreciate cither the essential characters of their wings, or their 
flight, without some such standards of comparison as is afforded 
by the wings of other creatures. 




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13 



CHAPTER II 



The First Bird. 

" And let Fowl fly above the earth ; with wings 

Displayed in the open firmanent of heaven." — Milton. 

The ancestors of birds — The first known bird and its many remarkable features 
— ^The gradual evolution of the birds of to-day. 

SOONER or later all bird-lovers find themselves pondering 
over the problem of the origin of birds : how they evolved 
their peculiar covering of feathers : what was the fashion of 
the original arm and hand out of which the wing was fashioned : 
and finally, whence have the birds been derived ? 

Since these pages are avowedly devoted to the subject of 
Flight, any attempt to summarize the state of our knowledge on 
these aspects of the history of birds would be in the nature of a 
trespass on the space, of necessity limited, which even a cursory 
survey of flight demands. 

Let it suffice, then, to say, that birds are descended from 
reptiles. The skeleton of modern birds bears undubitable testi- 
mony of this. For we have the evidence furnished us by the 



15 



remains of two remarkable skeletons, belonging to that very 
wonderful reptile-like bird, Archseopteryx. 

Only two skeletons of this wonderful bird are known, and 
they were obtained, many years ago, from the Solenhofen, or 
Lithographic slates of Bavaria. The wing and tail-feathers 
are as perfectly developed as in modern birds. But these 
precious fossils present two characters which have long since 
been lost by birds. The first of these is the presence of well 
developed teeth in the jaws. The birds of to-day have horny 
beaks. The teeth bespeak the reptile. The second is the long, 
tapering tail, which is composed of a series of cylindrical bones, 
forming a lizard-like appendage. But each bone, be it noted, 
supported a pair of stiff, tail-quills, so that the tail of this ancient 
bird, in its general appearance, differs in a very striking way 
from that of a modern bird, wherein these feathers seem all to 
spring from a common base, fan-wise. But as a matter of fact 
this appearance is deceptive, for the large bone, or " pygostyle " 
which supports the tail feathers of the adult, is found, in the 
embryo, to be made up of a series of separate pieces, agreeing in 
number with those of the tail of the fossil ancestor, Archaeopteryx. 
Each of these separate bones has, in fact, in the course of the ages, 
been shortened up to the condition of mere discs ; and this 
" telescoping " of the vertebrae has brought the once separated 
feathers close up, so that their bases lie packed in like the spokes 



i6 



of a fan. As a result, a much more efficient tail for the needs of 
flight has come into being. And the tail, it must be remembered, 
plays, especially in some birds, an important part. But this is not 
all. We have now to consider the wing. In all essentials this 
agrees with that of living birds. And this agreement is strikingly 
close when it is compared with the embryonic and early nestling 
stages. A detailed account of these resemblances, and differences, 
would be out of place here. Suffice it to say that its closest 
modern counterparts are to be found in the wing of the nestling 
of that strange South American bird, the Hoatzin, and the " Game- 
birds," such as of a young pheasant, or a young fowl. The evidence 
these can furnish in this matter of the evolution of the birds wing 
will be found in Chapter VI. For the moment it will be more 
profitable to discuss the broad outlines of the origin of flight, 
so far as this is possible. 

On this theme there are, as might be supposed, many opinions 
— some of them bearing little relation to fact. 

The feet of Archaeopteryx, it is important to remember, 
bear a very extraordinary likeness to the feet of a " perching " 
bird, say that of a crow. They are without any semblance of doubt, 
the feet of a bird which lived in trees. Archaeopteryx, then, was 
an arboreal bird. And this being so, the most reasonable 
hypothesis of the origin of flight is that it developed out of 
" gliding " movements, made for the purpose of passing from the 



17 



topmost branches of one tree to the lower branches of another, 
after the mode of the " flying-squirrels," and " flying-lemur " 
of to-day. The wing, at this primitive stage of its evolution, 
was even then, probably, a three-fingered limb, provided with a 
broad fringe of incipient feathers along its hinder border. At 
this stage the body would have been less bird-Hke than that of 
Archseopteryx, and have been still more like that of the ancestral 
reptilian stock from which the birds have sprung. That feathers 
are, so to speak, glorified reptilian scales cannot be certainly 
demonstrated, but men of Science are generally agreed that this 
was their origin. 

By the time that Archaeopteryx had come into being, true 
flight had been arrived at, though probably it could not have been 
long sustained. As these primitive birds increased in numbers, 
and spread from the woodlands to the open country, hfe became 
more strenuous. New enemies had to be evaded, longer journeys 
had to be made for food. Only the very best performers on the 
wing could survive, and thus, in each generation, the failures 
would be speedily weeded out, while competition among the 
survivors would raise the standard. We see the result of this 
" struggle for existence " in the many and varied types of wings, 
and of flight, which are presented in this book. 



i8 




ArCIL!EOPTERYX. 

Pterodactyles. 



19 



CHAPTER III. 



The Sizes and Shapes of Wings and their 
relation to FHght. 

" . . . the fowls of heaven have wings, 
And blasts of heaven will aid their flight : 

Chains tie us down by land and sea. — Wordsworth. 

The evasiveness of flight — The size of the wing in relation to that of the body — 
Noisy flight — " Muffled " flight — The swoop of the sparrow-hawk — The " flighting " 
of ducks — The autumn gatherings of starlings and swallows — " Soaring " flights of 
storks and vultures — The wonderful " sailing " feats of the albatross — The " soaring " 
of the skylark — The " plunging " flight of the gannet, tern, and kingfisher. 

WHO needs to be told that birds fly ? So common-place 
has this fact become that the many, and varied forms 
of wings, and the peculiarities of flight which are associated 
with these differences, are rarely perceived. Even sculptors, 
and artists show a hopeless unfamiliarity with the shapes of 
wings, and their meanings, at any rate, as a general rule. Look 
at their attempts to display birds in flight, or in the fanciful use 
of wings which convention has ascribed to angels. For the most 
part these superbly beautiful appendages are atrociously 
rendered. 



Yet it must be confessed that any attempt to explain, 
exactly how birds fly must fail. We can do no more than state 
the more obvious factors which are indispensable to flight, and 
the nature of its mechanism. The subtleties, and delicate 
adjustments of actual flight evade us. 

Our appreciation, however, of this supreme mode of 
locomotion will be materially quickened, if we make a point of 
studying the varied forms of flight as opportunities present 
themselves. 

To begin with, it is worth noting that the size of the wing 
decreases with the weight of the body to be lifted — up to a certain 
point, of course. This, perhaps, may seem strange a statement 
to make. But it can be readily verified. Compare, for 
example, the size of the body in relation to the wings, in the case 
of the butterfly and the dragon-fly, on the one hand, and the 
partridge and the crow, on the other. The two first named, 
by comparison, have enormous wings. 

Birds, it will be noticed, which haunt woods, or thickets, 
have short, rounded wings, like the wren, the pheasant, or 
the tawny owl. Such, on the other hand, as live in the open, 
like the gull, and the swallow, have long, pointed wings. The 
reason for this is fairly plain. Birds which must steer their 
course through the intricate mazes of a wood, or thicket, would 
find their flight seriously hampered by long wings. 



22 




Pheasants 



These general principles once realized, a foundation is laid 
on which one may base observations on the peculiarities of flight 
distinguishing different types of birds. 

Most of us, probably, at one time or another, in taking a 
walk through the woods, have been startled, almost out of our wits, 
by a sudden " whirr " of wings at our very feet ; made by some 
crouching pheasant, waiting till the very last moment before 
revealing himself, by taking flight. This alarming noise is due 
to the shortness and stiffness of the quill, or flight-feathers. 
With pinions moving with incredible speed, the bird is off like a 
rocket. Not seldom, probably, it owes its life to this ability 
to disconcert its enemies, till it has put a safe distance between 
itself and danger. By way of contrast, let us take the absolutely 
silent, easy movements of the owl, stealing forth in the twilight 
of a summer's evening, seeking whom he may devour. Here, 
again, we have a meaning in the mode of flight. Here silence 
is more than golden : it means life itself. Nimble-footed, sharp- 
eared mice and rats, must be snatched up before even the breath 
of suspicion can reach them. The uncanny silence of this 
approach is rendered possible, only by what may be called a 
" muffling " of the wings. For the flight-feathers are not only 
of great breadth, but they are covered, as it were, with velvet- 
pile, the " barbules " of the wing-quills, which form the agents 
by which the " web " of the quill is held together, having their 



23 



upper spurs produced into long, thread-like processes, which 
extinguishes any possibility of a warning " swish." 

John Bright, in one of his magnificient perorations, caused 
his spell-bound listeners to catch their breath, when, conjuring 
up a vision of the Angel of Death, he remarked " we can almost 
hear the rustle of his wings." One realizes the vividness of 
that imagerv, when one hears, as on rare occasions one may, 
the awe-inspiring rustle of the death-dealing swoop of the falcon, 
or the sparrow-hawk, as he strikes down his victim. 

But the swish, and whistle of wings often stirs the blood 
with delicious excitement, as, when one is out on some cold, dark 
night, " flighting." That is to say, awaiting mallard passing 
overhead on the way to their feeding ground, or in watching 
the hordes of starlings, or swallows, settling down to roost in a 
reed-bed. No words can describe these sounds, but those to 
whom they are familiar know well the thrill of enjoyment they 
beget. There is no need, here, to muffle the sound of the wing- 
beat. The falcon vies with the lightning in his speed, escape is 
well nigh hopeless : neither have the swallows need for silence ; 
indeed, on these occasions, they add, to the music of their wings, 
the enchantment of their twittering. 

So much for flight in its more general aspects. Let us turn 
now to a survey of some of the more remarkable forms of flight, 
beginning with that known as " soaring." 



H 



This but few birds have mastered, and to-dav it is rarely to be 
seen in our islands, for eagles, falcons, and buzzards are, un- 
fortunately, only to be found in a few favoured localities. 
Happily, however, one may yet realize the delight of watching a 
soaring buzzard, or raven, among the hills of Westmorland, or in 
parts of Cornw^all and Wales. But to see the past-masters in the 
art, one must seek the haunts of pelicans, vultures, and adjutant 
storks. The last-named is perhaps the finest performer of them 
all. For the first hundred feet or so he rises by rapid and powerful 
strokes of the wings, and then, apparently without the slightest 
effort, or the suspicion of a wing-beat, he sweeps round in great 
spirals, gaining some ten or twenty feet with each gyration, 
the wings and tail all the while being fully extended and the 
primary feathers widely separated at their tips. During the 
first part of every turn he is flying slightly downward : at the end 
of the descent he sweeps round and faces the wind, which carries 
him upward. Round, round, he goes, mounting ever higher and 
higher, until at last he attains a height of perhaps two miles. 

The adjutant thus goes aloft apparently for the mere delight 
the movement affords him. But not so with the vulture, who is 
a close rival in this art. He soars for his very existence, for dead 
bodies are not to be found everywhere. Possessing powers of 
sight infinitely greater than ours, he mounts aloft for the purpose 
of taking observations. If nothing " toothsome " can be seen 



25 



from his vast range, he turns his attention to the movements of 
such of his fellows as may be up on the same errand miles away. 
Should he see one swooping earthwards he instantly tracks him 
down, and is soon at the feast. This accounts for the mysterious 
way in which vultures will gather together to the feast, in a place 
where an hour ago not one was to be seen. A caravan of 
camels, perchance, is making its toilsome way across a burning 
desert. One falls by the way. In a few hours its bones will be 
picked clean by a horde of these ravenous birds. 

Longfellow sang the song of the vultures hunting in stately 
verse : — 

" Never stoops the soaring vulture 
On his quarry in the desert, 
On the sick or wounded bison, 
But another vulture, watching 
From his high aerial lookout. 
Sees the downward plunge and follows, 
And a third pursues the second. 
Coming from the invisible ether, 
First a speck, and then a vulture. 
Till the air is thick with pinions." 

Darwin, in his wonderful " Journal of a Voyage Round the 
World " gives a marvellously vivid word-picture of the largest, 
and most interesting of all the vultures, the Condor of the Andes 
— one of the largest of flying birds, having a wing-span of something 
over nine feet : — 

" When the condors are wheeling in a flock round and 
round an)' spot, their flight is beautiful. Except when rising from 



26 



~^^iL^\!'^ 




Blackgame. 



the ground, I do not recollect ever having seen one of these birds 
flap its wings. Near Lima, I watched several for nearly half an 
hour, without once taking off my eyes ; they moved in large 
curves, sweeping in circles, descending and ascending without 
giving a single flap. As they glided close over my head, I 
intently watched, from an oblique position, the outlines of the 
separate and great terminal feathers of each wing ; and these 
separate feathers, if there had been the least vibratory movement, 
would have appeared as if blended together ; but they were seen 
distinctly against the blue sky. The head and neck were moved 
frequently, and, apparently, with force, and the extended wings 
seemed to form the fulcrum on which the movements of the neck, 
body, and the tail acted. If the bird wished to descend, the 
wings for a moment collapsed ; and then again expanded with 
an altered inclination, the momentum gained by the rapid descent 
seemed to urge the bird upwards with the even and steady 
movement of a paper kite. In the case of any bird soaring, 
its motion must be sufficiently rapid, so that the action of the 
incHned surface of its body on the atmosphere may counter- 
balance its gravity. The force to keep up the momentum of a 
body moving in a horizontal plane in the air (in which there is so 
little friction) cannot be great, and this force is all that is wanted. 
The movement of the neck and body of the condor, we must 
suppose, is sufficient for this. However this may be, it is truly 



27 



wonderful and beautiful to see so great a bird, hour after hour, 
without apparent exertion, wheeling and gliding over mountain 
and river. 

Those who " go down to the sea in ships " have to face many 
perils, but the "wonders of the great deep " are for them a lure. 
One of these is to watch the marvellous " saiHng " flights of the 
wandering albatross. His wings have, when expanded, a 
peculiarlv " ribbon-like " form, and measure from tip to tip, 
over eleven feet — thus exceeding that of the condor, which, 
however, is the heavier bird of the two. The " ribbon-hke form 
of the wings is due to the extreme shortness of the flight-quills — 
the primaries and secondaries, and the great length of the arm 
and forearm. And it may be to these structural peculiarities 
that the " saiHng " flight just alluded to is due. Resembling 
soaring In many of its aspects, yet it diflfers materially in that it is 
performed low down, not at immense heights. The most 
graphic description of these movements is surely that of Mr. Froude : 
" The albatross," he tells us, " wheels in circles round and 
round, and for ever round the ship — now far behind, now sweeping 
past in a long rapid curve, like a perfect skater on a perfect field 
of ice. There is no effort ; watch as closely as you will, you will 
rarely see, or never see, a stroke of the mighty pinion. The 
flight is generally near the water, often close to it. You lose 
sight of the bird as he disappears in the hollow between the 



28 



waves, and catch him again as he rises over the crest ; but how he 
rises, and whence comes the propeUing force, is, to the eye, inex- 
plicable ; he alters merely the angle at which the wings are in- 
clined ; usually they are parallel to the water and horizontal ; 
but when he turns to ascend, or makes a change in his direction, 
the wings then point at an angle, one to the sky, the other to the 
water." 

One sometimes hears the skylark described as " soaring " 
upwards, when performing that wonderful musical ride which has 
made him so famous. But as, spell-bound, one listens to his 
rapturous strains, and watches his spiral ascent, one cannot help 
noticing that his wings are never still, they seem almost to be 
" beating time " to his music. In true soaring they are 
scarcely ever moved. 

The upward progress of a bird when soaring is, of necessity, 
comparatively slow. But in what we may call " plunging " 
flight the case is very different, for here the velocity of the descent 
is great. 

The frigate-birds of tropical seas, and the gannet of our own, 
display this mode of ifight to perfection. It is worth going far 
to see a gannet dive. Travelling at a relatively considerable 
height, and eagerly scanning the surface of the water for signs of 
a shoal of fish, this amazing birds dives with the speed of lightn- 
ing, and with half-spread wings disappears with a terrific plunge 



29 



beneath the surface, to emerge, an instant later, with his prey. 
One can measure the force of such a plunge by the cruel trick, 
sometimes played by fishermen, of fastening a herring to a board, 
and setting it adrift where gannets are about. The unsuspecting 
victim descends as usual upon his prey, only to meet instant death 
by the shock of his impact with the board. Those who talk 
glibly of indentifying birds by their flight may point to this 
wonderful diver as a case in point. But while one may often 
see the gannet on the wing, it is by no means so often that one will 
have the good fortune to see him dive, for he is not always hungry. 
His white body, pointed tail, and black quill-feathers would 
then enable the novice to name him at once. But — in his 
immature plumage, he would, at a little distance, appear black, 
and unless he were fishing, the chances of recognition would be 
bv no means great. Close at hand he would appear speckled 
with white. 

But this by the way. There are two other birds which dive 
from a height on the wing. One of these is the kingfisher : the 
other is the tern. The term " tern " is here used collectively, 
for there are several species, but all have this habit of diving 
from a height. During the summer months one may be quite 
sure of an opportunity of watching the graceful, easy flight of 
at least three species. For they haunt the sea-shore, river, and 
lake with equal impartiality. Those who are on the lookout for 



30 



•f ' 








V .i 







-:m^:^'>- 



Brown Owl 



terns, for the first time, will easily recognise them. For, in the 
first place they look like miniature gulls, but with longer and more 
pointed wings, and forked tails. Further, all have a characteristic 
black cap. They travel in small parties, as if for company, keep- 
no more than a yard or two from the surface of the water, and 
scanning it eagerly in search of shoals of small fish, or Crustacea. 
As these are found one will note a quickening of the wing-beat, 
and a sudden dive, like that of the gannet, with half-closed wings. 
And sometimes, too, the impetus will take them completely under 
water. 



31 



I 




1 Bat 6 Breast Bone of Swan 

2 Butterfly 7 „ „ „ Pigeon 

3 Beetle 8 ,, „ ,, PelicaiN 

4 Dragon-Fly 9 & 10 Apteryx, Cassowary (degenerate wings). 

5 Bone of Birds Wing, Showing the three Divisions, 

Arm — Fore- Arm — Hand. 



3 J 



CHAPTER IV. 



Modes of Flight. 

" The soaring lark is blest as proud 
When at Heaven's gate she sings ; 
The roving bee proclaims aloud 

Her flight by vocal wings." — Wordsworth. 

The movements of the wing in flight — Marey's experiments — Stopping and turn- 
ing movements — Ahghting — " Taking off " — Hovering — The use of the tail in flight 
— The carriage of the neck in flight — And of the legs — The flight of petrels — The 
speed of flight — The height at which birds fly — Flight with burdens — Experiments 
on the sizes of the wing in relation to flight — Flight in " troops." 

WHILE it is possible to show that certain kinds of flight 
are to be associated with such and such pecuHarities of 
the skeleton, and the muscles attached thereto, there are many 
" eccentricities " which cannot be measured, and explained, in 
terms of mechanism 

The A'ery disconcerting, twisting, flight of the snipe is one of 
these. The sportsman knows it well : and he knows that the 
twisting, during which the bird turns the body half over — that is 
with, say, the left wing pointing directly downwards, and the 
right wing directly upwards — is only the preliminary to getting 
fully on the way, and that, presently, it will pursue a straight 



35 



•course, with arrow-like speed. Yet its cousin, tiie jack-snipe, 
never twists. 

Why does the woodcock invariably drop after a charge of 
shot, even though not a pellet has touched it, while a snipe 
pursues its way ? These differences are not merely differences of 
"[habit " : they indicate subtle differences in nervous response 
to the same kind of stimulus, and in structural details yet to be 
unravelled. 

Some day the cinematograph will reveal to us all the phases 
•of flight and the movements to which they are due. Even now, 
thanks to the modern camera, we have learned a great deal. We 
have learned, for example, that the flight of a bird is not effected 
merely by rapid up and down movements of the fully extended 
wings, or with flexed wings — that is to say, half closed, as in 
" gliding " flight when a bird is descending, or in the swoop of, 
say, the sparrowhawk. Only in one of these two positions do we 
ever seem to see the wings when we have to trust to our eyes 
alone, as the bird hurries past us. The impression that we have 
seen aright is confirmed when we stand on the deck of a steamer, 
and watch the gulls following in its wake. For incredibly long 
distances they will travel without a perceptible wing-beat. The 
albatross is the finest of all performers in regard to this kind of 
flight, which is due, apparently, to air currents created by stiff 
breezes, or gales. Some birds seem to make their way against 



36 



a head-wind with the minimum of effort, by partly flexing the 
wings and gliding downwards : at the end of the descent, by 
turning the body sharply upwards, and spreading the wings to 
the fullest extent, they are lifted up, and driven forward, like 
a kite. 

Marey and Pettigrew, long ago, showed conclusively, by means 
of photography, that our conception of the movement of the wing 
during flight was far from correct. 

To avoid a long and tedious description, and many technical- 
ities, it must suffice to say that the wing of a bird possesses very 
considerable freedom and range of movement at the shoulder 
joint. Certainly, during some phases of flight, the wings are thrust 
forward and extended to their fullest extent, so that the outer 
margins of the wings come to lie almost parallel with the long 
axis of the body, as m.ay be seen in the spirited illustra- 
tion showing the goshawk in flight. As they sweep down- 
wards, and backwards, they lift the body and drive it forwards. 
At the end of the "sweep" they are " flexed," that is to say, bent 
at the elbow and wrist-joints, while at the same time they are 
raised and brought forward above the body for a repetition of the 
■stroke. These movements are too quick for the eye to follow, 
but they have been fixed for us by the camera. 

Marey devised an ingenious experiment in his endeavour 
to discover the movements of the bird's wing during flight. He 



37 



fastened a small piece of paper to the tip of a crows wing, and as 
the bird liew in front of a perfectly black screen he took a 
photograph of this moving speck of white, while, of course, no 
image of the crow appeared on the plate. The resultant 
picture gave a series of " figure of 8 loops " as one would make 
this figure with a pen, contriving to make the lower loop very small, 
and the upper loop very large. But as the wing-beat increased 
in speed the lower loop gradually faded out. 

These movements of the wing, however, are descriptive 
rather of what takes place during very vigorous flight, as when the 
bird is getting up " steam." When he is well under way there is 
no need for these long and very tiring strokes, except in the case 
of birds like the pheasant or the duck. A gull, when in full career 
does not, apparently, raise the wings very high, nor depresses them 
very low, nor does it flex the wings at the wrist-joints. 

Stopping and turning movements are generally extremely 
difficult to follow, because they are performed so quicklv. They 
can be seen fairly easily in the case of some of the larger birds. 
Ducks, as is well shown in one of our coloured Plates, draw the head 
backwards, tilt the body upward, thrust the feet forward, and 
spread the tail, at the same time turning it forwards. Gulls 
and pigeons too may be watched with profit. 

In turning, the body is tilted sideways, so that the tip of one 
wing points skywards, the other earthwards, as in the case of the 



38 




u 
=3 

Q 



goshawk illustrated in this book. The pigeon, and some other 
birds seem further to spread out the long, stiff quills borne by 
the thumb, which form what is known as the " bastard-wing." 
This turning movement is well shown, again, in the very 
realistic coloured picture of the woodcock turning in mid-air, 
and bearing too the burden of one of its nestlings. 

If it is difficult to satisfy oneself as to the way in which a 
bird alights, it is no less so to detect its movements in taking 
wing. Most of us must have seen sparrows making this effort from 
the road, thousands of times. But ask of anyone, How is it done ? 
The act takes place so quickly that the eye cannot follow its 
execution. And what is true of the sparrow is true of most birds. 
But there are some where this is not the case. Many water- 
birds, the cormorant, for example, get under way but slowly, 
and with evident effort. They flap along the surface for some 
distance before they gain sufficient impetus to lift them into the 
air. And there are many long-winged, short-legged birds which 
can rise from a level surface only with great difficulty, or not at 
all. The swift is one of these, for its legs are excessively short. 
The albatross is another : and this is true, indeed, of many of the 
petrel-tribe. The puffin, again, seems unable to rise on the wing 
from the ground. It appears invariably to run along until it 
reaches the edge of chff which lodges its burrow, and then, as it 
were, throw itself over the edge. The heron, when springing 



39 



into the air, stretches his long neck out to its fullest extent, and 
presents a pair of dangling legs, well shown in one of our coloured 
Plates, but when once fully on the way its pose entirely changes, 
the neck being drawn in and the legs thrust out backwards. 

Flight does not always mean progress through the air. Most 
birds can, at need, arrest their course, and hang, as it were, 
suspended in the air. In the beautiful coloured plate, represent- 
ing the chaffinch hovering over its half-fledged young, and in that 
of the kingfisher and its young, this form of " hovering " flight 
can be seen. But the greatest of all exponents in the art of 
hovering is the kestrel, known also, for this very reason, as the 
" windover." It is most fascinating to watch this bird hang, 
as it were, from the clouds, motionless, yet with quivering wings, 
as he scans the ground below in his search for some unsuspecting 
mouse. It is hard, indeed, to say which is the more wonderful, 
this power of remaining stationary for comparatively long 
periods in the air, or the surprising powers of sight which this 
bird possesses. During these hovering movements, always head 
to wind, it will be noted, the tail plays a very important part, 
being spread to its extremest limit, and at the same time thrust 
forward beneath the body. In some birds this forward move- 
ment is more marked than in others. And this because such 
birds possess a somewhat more flexible spine, there being a certain 
amount of " play " where the vertebrae of the loins join the welded 



40 



mass of vertebrae which lie between the bones of the hip-girdle. 

But the tail feathers are not indispensable. This much is 
shown in the case of birds like the kingfisher, the water-hen, and 
the land-rail, which contrive to fly well, and at a great pace, 
though they have but the merest apology for a tail. More than 
this, the grebes have no tail at all. But it is to be noted that they 
are by no means adept at turning movements; owing to the lack of 
this appendage the body, when in mid-air, has a curiously trun- 
cated appearance, as may be seen in the illustration. Further, it 
is significant that in the contemptible " sport " of pigeon-shooting 
from traps, the birds are deprived of their tails to prevent them 
from making turning movements. 

The carriage of the head and neck, and of the legs, during 
flight presents some interesting, and some instructing contrasts. 

Ducks, geese, and swans, flamingoes, storks, and cormorants 
always fly with the head and neck stretched out to their fullest 
extent. Herons and pelicans, though also long-necked birds, 
draw the head back till it rests almost on the shoulders. Most 
birds, indeed, fly with the head drawn back towards the body. 
The appearance of some of these birds on the wing can be seen at 
a glance on turning to the page illustrating this aspect of flight. 

Not so very long ago a great controversy was waged as to 
what birds did with their legs during flight. Many of the older 
artists invariably depicted them drawn up under the breast. But 



41 



as a matter of fact, this method seems to be confined to the 
Passerine birds — the " perching birds," such as crows and finches 
and their kin. It has yet to be settled what obtains among what 
are known as the " Picarian " birds, such as kingfishers, bee- 
eaters, woodpeckers, and so on. The legs and feet of these birds 
are so small, and their flight is so rapid, that the matter is by no 
means an easy one to settle. But all other birds carry the legs 
and toes bent backwards, under the tail. In the gulls, this can 
easily be seen, and easier still in the case of the common heron, 
where they are, as it were, trailed out behind — owing to the 
shortness of the tail and the great length of the leg. The puffin 
carries them " splayed " out on each side of his tail, and so also do 
his kinsmen, the razor-bills, and guillemots. 

The legs, as a rule, take no part in flight. True, they can be 
seen thrust out just before alighting, but this is solely for the 
purpose of effecting a safe landing. But where gulls can be 
watched at close quarters, as in harbours, round a ship, or in such 
favoured spots as are to be found about the bridges of London 
during the winter, careful watch will show that the legs are 
frequently used when efforts are being made to turn, or check the 
speed of flight. 

Some of the smaller petrels — like the storm-petrel, or " Mother 
Carey's chickens," will patter over the water with their feet as they 
fly just over the surface of the waves. 



42 




I. 



Scaup. 



ia._ 

2. GOLDENEYE. 



■' )■ POCIIARI). 

5 I 
to <• Mallard. 

10. J 



Whether the legs are carried drawn close up beneath the 
breast, or thrust backwards under the tail, the purpose of this 
disposal is the same — to prevent any interference with the " stream- 
lines " of the body which would impede flight. 

On the matter of the speed of flight there seems to be much 
misconception. Gatke, the German ornithologist, gravelv asserted 
that the little Arctic blue-throat — one of our rarer British birds — - 
could leave its winter resort in Africa in the dusk of evening, and 
arrive at Heligoland — where he spent so many years studying 
bird migration — nine hours later. That is to say it could travel 
1, 600 geographical miles in a single night, at the astovmding 
velocity of 180 miles an hour! According to another estimate 
of his, curlews, godwits, and plovers crossed from Heligoland 
to the oyster-beds lying to the eastward, a known distance of 
rather more than four English miles, in one minute ; or at the rate 
of over 240 miles an hour. Against such extravagant estimates 
it is hardly necessary to bring rebutting evidence. But if any be 
demanded it may be furnished by the carrier pigeon, which has 
been known to maintain a speed of 55 miles an hour for four hours 
in succession : and it is extremely unlikely that this is much, 
if at all, exceeded by any wild bird during long-distance flights. 

That our spring and autumn migrants must possess wonderful 
powers of endurance is beyond question. And it is equally certain 
that thousands must perish by the way. By this means is the 



43 



standard of flight maintained — the weak perish. Even the 
minumum standard of efficiency for the survival of such an ordeal 
must be a high one. 

Few of us see anything of these marvellous migration flights. 
For, in the flrst place, they are generally performed at night, and 
at a great height, often beyond the range of human vision. Only 
as they approach land, and their destination, do they descend, 
American naturalists have made some interesting observations 
by directing a telescope against the sky. Thus, Mr. Frank 
Chapman, by turning his instrument towards the full moon, has 
seen birds passing at night at an altitude, according to his com- 
putation, of five miles : while the late Mr. W. E. D. Scott saw, 
through an astronomical telescope at Princeton, New Jersey, 
great numbers of birds passing across the face of the moon — 
warblers, finches, and woodpeckers among them. Mr. Chapman 
again, on another occasion, saw no less than 262 birds pass over 
the field of his telescope at a height of from 1,500 to 15,000 feet : 
and the most remarkable thing of all was the fact that the lowest 
birds were flying upwards, as if they had risen from the immediate 
neighbourhood and were seeking the proper elevation to continue 
their flight. 

As has already been remarked, when nearing their destina- 
tion migrating birds descend, though still many miles from land. 
Should a gale be raging they fly so low that they barely top the 



4+ 



waves. And this, apparently, to escape, so far as is possible, 
the force of the wind. I.arks, starlings, thrushes, and other 
small birds, can sometimes be seen during daylight crossing the 
North Sea in their thousands. At such times many will often 
afford themselves a brief rest in the rigging of ships, homeward 
bound, but the main host hurry on. The beautiful golden 
crested wren, our smallest British migrant, is one of these. A 
glance at our charming coloured plate will show at once that 
the wing is not that of a bird of strong flight. There is no more 
interesting experience to the bird-lover than that of watching the 
tired travellers drop earthwards, as they leave the dreadful sea 
behind them. 

With all birds yet retaining the power of flight there is 
always a liberal " margin of safety " in regard to the wing area. 
That is to say this is always in excess of the minimum area 
necessary to make flight possible. This much, indeed, is manifest 
from the fact that the eagle can bear off a victim equalling him- 
self in weight. Should he miscalculate, he can always drop his 
burden, or lessen its weight by eating part of it on the spot. Not 
so the osprey, or the sea-eagle, which have been known to plunge 
down and drive their talons into fishes too large to be raised. 
Unable to release their grip, death, by drowning, has inevitably 
followed. 

Sometimes the burden is a passenger, instead of a victim. 



45 



One of the most striking ot the coloured plates in this volume is 
that of a woodcock carrying one of its nestlings to a distant 
feeding place. This habit is well known. It is not often that the 
necessity arises, but there are occasions where suitable nesting and 
feeding grounds cannot be found together, or when, as during 
prolonged drought, the normal feeding area dries up. Then, 
instinctively, the parent will surmount the dangers of starvation 
for their offspring, by conveying them to a land of plenty, 
returning again to the shelter of the wood as soon as the meal 
is over. The weight of a newly-hatched nestling, it is true, could 
scarcely be called a " burden." But they are carried about thus 
until they are strong enough to perform the journey for them- 
selves. Thus, then, towards the end of the nursing period the 
weight to be carried is by no means a light one. 

But it was shown, long since, by direct experiment, that the 
area of a bird's wing is considerably in excess of what is required 
for the purpose of flight. Dr. J. Bell Pettigrew, more than fifty 
years ago, to test this matter, cut off more than half of the 
secondary wing feathers of a sparrow, parallel with the long axis 
of the wing. He first clipped one, then both wings, and found 
that in both cases flight was apparently unimpaired. He then 
removed a fourth of the primary feathers — the outermost quills 
— and still the flight was unimpaired. At any rate the bird 
flew upwards of thirty yards, rose to a considerable height and 



46 



alighted In a tree. Thirty yards, however, is a short flight even 
for a sparrow. But it is enough to show that flight, if not 
sustained flight, was possible after this mutilation. Not until 
more than one-third of the quills along the whole length of the 
wing were removed, did the flight become obviously laboured. 
And he found that what was true of the sparrow, was equally true 
of the wings of insects. 

Though these experiments demonstrate, in a very unmis- 
takable manner, that flight with a greatly reduced wing area is 
possible, we have no evidence that this reduction would make no 
difference to the length of time the bird could remain on the 
wing. And this is a very important matter. 

An aspect of flight which has now to be considered is that of 
birds which fly in troops. Some species always travel thus, 
others only on occasions. Rooks and gulls afford instances of 
this, when, during windy weather, or for other reasons, they 
congregate and fly round and round in great circles, at a con- 
siderable height. Small wading-birds, like ringed plovers and 
dunlin, commonly fly in " bunches." The last named furnish a 
singularly interesting sight when thus travelling ; for their 
evolutions are so amazingly timed. As if at a given signal every 
bird in the troop will change its course at the same moment, and 
in the same direction, so that now one sees a flickering mesh-work 
of grey, and now a shimm.ering as of snow-flakes, as first the grey 



47 



backs, and then the white breasts are turned towards one. But 
flights such as this are to be seen only during the autumn and 
winter months. For during the breeding season these Httle 
flocks are broken up and distributed far and wide. But there is 
yet another reason. They wear a totally different dress — the 
courtship or breeding plumage. Herein the upper parts are of a 
rich chestnut hue, streaked with black, while the under parts are 
black. Even more fascinating to watch are the autumn troops of 
starlings on the way to their roosting places. Hundreds at a 
time, not to say thousands, take part in these flights. Now they 
rush onward, in one great far-flung sheet, and now they close up 
into a great, almost ball-like, mass : and now they thin out till 
they look like a trail of smoke. But always they wheel and turn 
and rise and descend, not as separate bodies, but as one. How are 
such wonderful evolutions timed. The movements of an army 
on review-day are not more precise, or more perfectly carried 
out. Dunng the whole flight not a sound, save the swishing 
of their wings can be heard. The marvel of it all is beyond the 
range of words, nor can one express the peculiar delight such a 
sight affords. 

Why is it that ducks and geese commonly fly either in Indian 
file, or in a roughly V-shaped formation, with the apex of the V 
forward ? Why do they not fly all abreast ^ One cannot say, 
but they never do. 



Some mention must be made here of the surprising numbers 
in which geese, of some species, congregate. Writing of the 
Brent goose, in his " Bird Life of the Borders," Mr. Abel 
Chapman — and there are few men who can write with such 
authority on the subject — tells us : — " Just at dark the whole 
host rise on the wing together, and make for the open sea. In 
the morning they have come in by companies and batallions. 
but at night they go out in one solid army ; and a fine sight it is 
to witness their departure. The whole host, perhaps ten thousand 
strong, here massed in dense phalanxes, elsewhere in columns 
tailing off into long skeins, V's or rectilineal formations of every 
conceivable shape, (but always with a certain formation) — out 
they go, full one hundred yards high, while their loud clanging, 
defiance — " honk, honk, — torrock, torrock," and its running 
accompaniment of lower croaks and shrill bi-tones, resounds 
for miles around." 



49 



CHAPTER V. 



Courtship Flights 

A pair of falcons wheeling on the wing. 

In clamourous agitation . ." — VVordswortk. 

The wing-play of black-game and grouse — The " musical ride " of the snipe — 
The " roding " of the woodcock — The musical fhghts of redshank and curlew — 

The " tumbling " of the lapwing — The raven's somersaults The courting flight 

of the wood pigeon — The mannikins ' ' castanets ' ' — Wings as lures — The strange pose 
of the sun-bittern — The " wooing " of the chaffinch and the grasshopper- warbler — 
Darwin and wing-displays — The wonderful wings of the argus-pheasant. 

OXE of the most striking features of bird-life is surely 
its restless activity. This is always apparent, but it 
attains to a state of almost feverish excitement as the spring 
advances, and the parental instincts re-awaken. As they 
gather strength, so they manifest themselves, in outbursts of 
song — often of exquisite beauty — strange antics, or wonderful 
evolutions in mid-air. 

It is with these last that we are chiefly concerned here. As 
might be supposed, they present a wide variety in the matter of 
their form and duration. Black-game furnish an example of a 
very simple form of courtship flight, but it is associated with 
curious antics on the ground. And these, it is to be noted, are 
only to be witnessed soon after sunrise. Two blackcocks will 



53 



approach one another and stand as if prepared to ward off a very 
vigorous onslaught ; reminding one of two barn-door cockerels. 
With lowered head and neck they face one another, the beautiful 
lyrate tail spread fan-wise, and arched so that the curled, outer, 
feathers touch the ground, while the wings are trailed like those 
of the turkey-cock. Then one will at last rush forward, and 
seizing his adversary by the scruff of the neck, will administer 
a sound beating with his wings. The victor celebrates his 
triumph by a loud, and most unmusical screech, which has been 
likened, by that accomplished observer and sportsman-artist, 
Mr. J. G. Millais, to the call of cats on the house-tops at mid- 
night. But presently a greyhen makes her appearance. 
Hostilities cease at once, on all sides ; and intense excitement 
prevails amongst the whole assembly — for a large number of 
cocks will gather together at these sparring matches. Her 
approach has been observed by a single bird, who, unintentionally, 
gives the signal by suddenly drawing himself up to a rigid 
position of attention, till he is sure she is really coming, then 
he throws himself into the air and flutters up a few feet, uttering 
at the same time, a peculiar hoarse note of exultation. Immed- 
iately all the others follow suit ; each seeming to strive to outdo 
his neighbour in a series of absurd pirouettings. Here we have 
a " Love-flight," of exceedingly brief duration, associated with 
terrestrial combats and frantic prancings. 



54 




Woodcock carrying Young 



The grouse pursues a different method. He strives to incite 
his mate to amourous moods by chasing her about. But she is 
*' coy," and will tolerate this for hours at a time, apparently 
intent on nothing more than seeking something interesting to 
eat, she seems to affect to be quite unaware of the presence of her 
importunate mate ; though her behaviour is belied by the fact 
that she keeps up a continuous " cheeping " note, heard only at 
this time of the year. Every now and then he will vary his 
tactics by leaping up into the air and taking an upward flight of 
from twenty to thirty feet, crowing vociferously. On alighting 
he will commence his addresses again. Then, perhaps, she 
herself will take to flight, darting off and twisting like a snipe, 
evidently enjoying her tantalizing tactics. He follows in close 
pursuit, in the hope, doubtless, of satisfying his desires, when she 
shall come to rest. Here is a " courtship " flight of longer duration, 
in which both sexes participate. 

The " musical ride " of the snipe is of a much more imposing 
character : and in this, again, both sexes take a part. During 
this performance, which affords some thrilling moments to the 
bird-lover, the bird ascends to a great height, and then plunges 
earthwards in a terrifflc " nose-dive " accompanied by a weird 
bleating noise, comparable to the bleat of a goat. For long 
years discussion waged furiously as to the source of this sound. 
Some held that it was produced by the voice : others by the 



55 



tremulous motion of the wing-feathers : others, again, contended 
that it was caused by the tail feathers. This was first mooted by 
the Danish naturalist, Meeves, and he produced some very 
striking and curious evidence to prove his view. He showed that 
the outermost tail-feathers had peculiarly thickened shafts, 
which were also bent in a very striking way. By removing these 
feathers, and sticking them into a cork, he was enabled, bv 
twirling the cork rapidly round at the end of a string, to reproduce 
the " bleat " exactly. Many years later Dr. Philip Bahr revived 
this experiment, for the purpose of finally setting the matter at 
rest — for there were still many who remained unconverted to 
the Meeves interpretation. Dr. Bahr left no room for further 
doubt. He showed, too, that during the production of this 
sound these tail-feathers were extended laterally, so as to 
separate them from the rest of the tail, and so give the air rushing 
past them during the earthward plunge, full play on these sound- 
producing structures. He too, applied the test first instituted 
by Meeves, and so clinched his arguments. One may hear this 
strange music as early as February, and even, though rarely, 
as late as July. But it is essentially a breeding-season, or rather 
a " Courtship " perforniance sound, though it may be evoked by 
a sitting bird suddenly surprised, when she will " bleat " 
as she leaves her eggs, possibly to distract the intruder on 
her vigil. 



56 



The woodcock has a " love-flight " but of a quite different 
character, known by sportsmen as " roding." It takes the form 
of short flights up and down the " ride," or space selected for the 
nesting site. But while the female is sitting the male will still 
continue these flights, choosing the early morning and evenings. 
As he goes he utters strange cries, which have been compared, 
by some, to the words " more rain to-morrow " and by others 
to, " Cro-ho, cro-ho," varied by a note sounding like, " whee-e- 
cap." These flights are varied by strange little displays upon the 
ground, when he will strut about before his mate with wings 
drooped and trailing on the ground, the tail spread, and the 
feathers of the head and neck standing on end. This gives him a 
very odd appearance, to human eyes, but it serves its purpose — 
which is to arouse his mate to amourous moods. 

Redshank, curlew, and dunlin — cousins of the snipe and 
woodcock — are all accomplished performers in the art of wooing 
on the wing. The male redshank, uttering flute-like notes, 
Mr. Farren tells us, soars up to a moderate height, and remains, 
for a brief space, " hanging in the wind " with the tips of his 
curved wings rapidly vibrating. He then descends, pipit-like, 
earthwards, while the song, which has been uttered slowly, now 
quickens, reaching its climax as the bird, raising its wings above 
its back for an instant, finally alights on the ground. But he has 
yet other wiles, which are not used in mid-air. Approaching his 



57 



mate with his head erect and body drawn up to its full height, 
he raises his wings for an instant high above his head : then 
allowing them gradually to droop, he vibrates them, at the same 
time rapidly moving his legs like a soldier " marking time." 

The curlew seems to prefer the evening for his best efforts. 
Rising from the ground with rapid wing-beats, he will " check " 
suddenly when near the summit of his ascent ; so suddenly as 
almost to throw himself backwards. Then, recovering, he will 
hang poised, kestrel-like, in mid-air, and pour forth a joyous 
thrilling, or jodelling, song. Rising and falling, on quivering 
wings, or sweeping round in great circles, and hovering again, 
he will remain for some considerable time pouring forth this 
joyful ripple of song. 

The courtship flight of the lapwing is even, if possible, more 
interesting. Rising from the ground with slow heavy flaps of his 
broad wings — which, it is to be noted, present a remarkable differ- 
ence from those of the female, in that the primaries are much longer, 
so as to give this portion of the extended wing a conspicuously 
broader appearance — as though he had difficulty in getting under 
way, he speedily dissipates this impression by a sudden upward 
rush, an effortless turn, apparently ; and then follows a downward 
swoop, or fall, with half-closed wings. To this swoop there 
succeeds a surprising change. In an instant the wing-beat is 
increased to an incredible speed, causing the body to turn a half, 



58 



> 






^^ 



k-«^ 





Lapwings. 



and sometimes even a complete somersault. But the next instant 
he is up and away over the ground with musical wing- 
beats, tilting and swaying from side to side with wonderful 
buoyancy. 

Throughout, this delightful performance is accompanied by 
a wild and joyous song, which seems to be attuned to the somewhat 
bleak surroundings. It thrills one even to remember it in later 
days : and it defies one to express it in human fashion. It has 
been as nearly rendered as any version I have ever seen — and I 
have seen many — by Mr. Brock. It is not a whistle, nor is it 
like any sound that can be faithfully rendered by the human 
voice, yet it seems to say " whcy-williichoocc-willuch-zvilluch- 
cooee.'''' It suffers a break, remarks Mr. Farren, commenting on 
this theme, during the flutter of the wings at the end of the fall, 
but is picked up at once with a triumphant " coo-whee, coo-ee," 
as the bird dashes off at the end of the somersault. 

The lapwing is very intolerant of any trespass on his breed- 
ing territory on the part of his neighbours. As soon as the 
intruder is sighted, the owner of the territory charges. And the 
two then mount up into the air, often to a great height, each striv- 
ing to get above the other for a downward swoop. As the one 
" stoops " at the other, the lower bird dodges, and so rapidly are 
the wings moved that they are often brought smartly together 
over the back, producing a clapping noise. 



59 



Even the black, forbidding raven has his amorous moods. 
And at such times he will even outdo the more lively, though 
irascible lapwing in the art of aerial somersaults ; if somersaults 
they can be called. For in the middle of an ordinary spell of 
flying he will suddenly fold up his wings and bring them close up 
to the body, at the same time turning completely round, as though 
he were turned on a spit ; the body being held horizontal as the 
turn is made. For a moment or two there he is suspended, as it 
were, between earth and sky, with his back towards earth, and his 
breast towards the heavens. Lest he should forget the manner of 
the trick, it would seem, he will practice it at times, during the 
stern work of chasing intruders from his territory ; for he will 
brook no competitors on his ground. 

The woodpigeon, during the courtship season, makes frequent 
sallies into the air for the purpose, apparently, of giving vent 
to his exuberant feelings. During such flights he will dart up 
from the tree-tops and sail round, high above, in great circles, 
rising and falling as he goes, with outspread wings, every now and 
then bringing them over his back with a resounding snap. During 
such displays the white bar across the wing is most conspicuous, 
serving at once to identify the performer. 

Among our native birds, the only other species which 
habitually, and especially during the courting season, produce 
characteristic sounds during flight, by bringing the wings smartly 



60 



1 



together over the back, is the nightjar. But there are certain 
small passerine birds, known as mannakins, inhabiting the 
forests of South America, which have the shafts of the quill-feathers 
of the fore-arm enormously thickened. By means of these 
transformed and translated " castenets," at will, the bird can 
produce a sound which has been likened to the crack of a whip. 

So far this discourse has been concerned solely with " court- 
ship " flights, or flights associated with peculiar sounds, dependent 
on rapid movements of the wing in mid-air for their production. 
And with the mention of these instances this Chapter might, quite 
legitimately, be brought to an end. But it must not. And this, 
because there are a number of birds which put their wings, during 
Courtship season, to very different purposes. Spectacular 
flights and evolutions in mid-air do not appeal to them. They 
use their wings instead as lures, as a means of adding intensity 
to strange poses and pirouettings ; whereby they desire to give 
expression to the amorous feelings which possess them, in the 
hope — if for the moment, we may accord to them human 
standards of intention — of arousing kindred emotions in their 
mates. 

Darwin was the first to draw attention to these curious dis- 
plays. Which, on the evidence then available, seemed always to 
be made, and only to be made, by birds having wings con- 
spicuously coloured. It seemed as though the possessors of such 



6i 



wings were conscious of their beauty, and so displayed them that 
nothing of their glory should be missed. 

The sun-bittern affords a case in point. This bird, a native 
of Brazil, is soberly, but very beautifully coloured when at rest ; 
its plumage presenting an indescribable mixture of black, grey, 
brown, bay, and white ; blended in the form of spots, bars, and 
mottlings. But during times of sexual excitement it will spread 
out its wings in the form of a great fan, encircling the long, slender, 
neck. And in this position they present a very conspicuous 
appearance, taking the form of beautifully graded bands of black, 
white, and bright grey, forming patterns which vanish the 
moment the primaries fall into their place behind the quills of 
the fore-arm. But when thus spread the bird seems to find the 
greatest delight in displaying their chaste splendour before his 
mate. He seems to spread his wings just because he is con- 
scious of their beauty when thus opened out. 

But we need not travel so far as Brazil to find examples of 
displays of this kind. Among the birds of our own Islands we 
can find many close parallels. The chaffinch and the goldfinch, 
when seeking to arouse the sympathy of their mates make much 
play with their wings, not only in short " nuptial flights," designed, 
apparently, to display the conspicuous and brilliant colouring of the 
plumage as a whole, but when perched on some convenient spray. 
At such times the wing is more or less completely spread out, as if 



62 



to reveal, to the fullest possible advantage, the bright bars and 
splashes of colour which this extension alone can bring into being. 

Since these gaily coloured vestments seemed always to be 
associated with striking, stilted, attitudes, sometimes bordering 
on the grotesque, and always to be paraded in the presence of 
the female, Darwin drew the inference that they were the outcome 
of female choice persistently exercised during long generations. 
That is to say he held that, far back in the history of the race, 
these performers were soberly clad, as their mates commonly are. 
Then certain of the males of these now resplendent species began 
to develop patches of colour, small at first, but gradually increas- 
ing, generation by generation, in area and intensity. This 
progressive splendour, he believed, was due to the " selective " 
action of the females, which, from the very first, chose from among 
their suitors those who stood out among their fellows by reason 
of their brighter plumage. Thus the duller coloured males died 
without offspring. On this assumption each succeeding genera- 
tion would be, in some slight degree, brighter than the last, until 
the process of transformation ended in the glorified creatures we 
so admire to-day. 

It would be foreign to the purpose of this book to pursue this 
theme at length. Let it suffice to say that while the " Sexual 
Selection " theory still holds good, it has, so to speak, changed its 
complexion. And this largely owing to the accumulation of 



63 



new facts. For the most important of these we are indebted to 
the singularly exact and laborious observations analysed, 
clarified, and interpreted with remarkable insight and sagacity 
of Mr. H. Eliot Howard, one of the keenest Ornithologists of our 
time. He has set forth his case, and interpreted his facts 
with masterly skill, and there seems no escape from his con- 
clusions. Briefly, he has shown that birds of quite sober coloration 
like the warblers, which formed the basis of his investigations, 
engage in displays quite as remarkable, and of precisely the same 
character as in birds of gaily coloured plumage. From this it is 
clear that this wing-play is not prompted by a more or less 
conscious desire to display conspicuously coloured patches of 
colour, for of colour there is none save that of the general hue 
of varying shades of brown, as in the case of the grasshopper 
warbler, for example. Nor is the display, apart from colour, 
to be regarded as a performance slowly perfected through long 
generations through the selection of females, coy and hard to 
please. We must regard these " Nuptial flights " and wing-dis- 
plays, as the outward and visible signs of a state of ecstatic 
amorousness on the part of the males which, by their persistence 
and frequent recurrence, at last arouse sympathetic response in 
the females. They play the part of an aphrodisiac. Without 
them there would be no mating. In my " Courtship of Animals " 
those who will may pursue this subject further. 



64 



Before closing this Chapter mention must be made of the most 
remarkable wing-display to be found among birds, and of the 
equally remarkable uses to which they are put. The possessor 
of these wonderful appendages, for they are wonderful, is the 
argus pheasant of the Malay Peninsula and Borneo. Though 
efficient for short flights in jungles, all that is ever required of 
them, they would be quite useless in open country where an 
extended journey had to be made, or escape attempted from some 
vigorous enemy. And this because the secondary wing-quills — 
the quills attached to the forearm — are of enormous length, 
making, as we have remarked, sustained flight impossible. They 
have, indeed, come dangerously near losing their normal 
functions altogether. And this because they have passed over into 
the category of specialised " secondary sexual characters." But 
for the fact that this bird lives in an environment where food 
is abundant all the year round, and can be obtained without 
any undue exertion, and that there are no serious enemies to 
be evaded, it would long since have become extinct. For 
this exuberant growth of quill-feathers must be borne all the 
year round, though they are not required to function in their 
later role, save during the period of courtship. 

Their great length is not their only striking feature, or even 
their chief feature. This, indeed, is represented by their 
extraordinary coloration. For each feather bears along its 



6S 



outer web a series of " ocelli," so coloured as to look like a series 
of dull gold balls lying within a deep cup. Outside the ocelli 
run numerous pale yellow longitudinal stripes on a nearly black 
background. The inner web is of a delicate greyish brown hue, 
shading into white and relieved by innumerable black spots, 
while the tips of the quills have white spots bordered with 
black. The primaries, too, are most exquisitely coloured, though 
in the matter of size they are not very exceptional. These, 
indeed, are the only true flight feathers. 

The full beauty and significance of the coloration of these 
feathers can only be appreciated during periods of display. 
Then the two wings, in some indescribable manner, are opened 
out so as to form a huge circular screen, concealing the whole of 
the rest of the body. The effect produced from the human 
standpoint is one of great beauty, after the first burst of astonish- 
ment has spent itself. His mate is less easily moved. Perchance 
" familiarity breeds contempt." At any rate it is only after 
persistent and frequent attempts to charm her to his will that 
success rewards him. 

Those who have the good fortune to be able to make 
frequent visits to the Zoological Gardens in London may, with 
great good fortune, and at rare intervals, have an opportunity 
of witnessing such a display, and of studying in detail these 
wonderful wings. They are wonderful, not merely because 



66 



of the manner of their display, or of their colouring, but also 
because in them we see ornament pushed to its furthest limit 
since, as wings, they have become well nigh useless, and therefore 
almost dangerous to the well-being of their possessors. 



(>1 




69 



CHAPTER VI. 



How to tell Birds on the Wing. 

" I can tell a hawk from a hernshaw." — Shakespeare. 

The small perching-birds and the difficulty of distinguishmg them — The wag- 
tails — The finches — The buntings — The redstart-wheatear, Stonechat — The 
thrushes — The warblers — The tit-mice — The nuthatch, and tree-creeper — The 
spotted-flycatcher — The red-backed shrike — swallows, martins, and swifts — The 
night-jar — owls — Woodpeckers. 

THE experienced ornithologist apart, there are hosts of people 
who are interested, at least, in our native birds : who would 
fain call them all by name ; yet who can distinguish no more than 
a very few of our commonest species. They are constantly 
hoping to find some book which will give, in a word, the " Hall- 
mark " of every bird they may meet in a day's march. But that 
book will never be written. For some species present no out- 
standing features by which they may be certainly identified, 
when no more than a momentary examination is possible, and this 
at a distance. And it is often extremely difficult to set down in 
words, exactly, what are the reasons for deciding that some 
rapidly retreating form belongs to this, or that, species. 



71 



And then, too, there are difficulties due to seasonal changes 
of plumage — often striking — sex, and age ; since immature 
birds often differ totally from the adults in appearance. The 
young robin and the starling aflford instances in point. 

The adult starling, as everybody knows, is " black " with a 
yellow beak and reddish legs. But seen close at hand his feathers 
gleam with a wonderful metallic sheen reflecting changing hues of 
violet, green, and purple. The young bird, in the early summer, 
is of a pale brown colour. In the autumn the plumage is changed 
for a " black dress," like that of the adult, but heavily spotted 
with white. As the winter wears on the white spots become 
abraded, and disappear. The robin needs no description. But 
the young bird, in its first plumage, is commonly mistaken for 
the female, which, of course, is practically indistinguishable 
from the male. It is certainly unlike one's notion of a " cock- 
robin," being of a yellowish brown colour, with pale spots, a type 
of plumage characteristic of the young of the " thrush tribe." 

In some nearly related species, again, the males are strikingly 
different, the females barely distinguishable. 

But nevertheless, a very considerable number of our British 
birds can be more or less easily distinguished during flight — 
sometimes by the manner of that flight, sometimes by character- 
istic markings, sometimes by the notes they utter ; and these are 
briefly summarised in this Chapter. 



72 




1. Swallow. 

2. House Martln. 

3. Swift. 

4. Sand .Martin. 



5. I'lHi) \\A(;iAn.. 

(1. (!kky W'actaii.. 

7. Yellow \\'a(;tail 

S. Chafi-inch. 



t). (iOLDEINCH. 

10. Linnet. 

11. CiREENFINCH. 

12. Bullfinch. 



When it is realized that no less than 475 species, and sub- 
species, of British birds arc now recognized, it will be apparent 
that it would be impossible to do more than briefly epitomise the 
commoner species, and some of these, like the robin, and the 
wren, need no interpreter. 

The aim of this Chapter is primarily to give, as far as 
possible, the salient features of our commoner native birds, as 
seen during flight. But some species merely " flit," from one 
place to another, and that so rapidly that no details of coloration 
can be distinguished. They can only be examined at favourable, 
and often fleeting moments, when at rest, and clear of foliage. 
Only such as are frequently encountered are included here. To 
attempt more would be to lead to confusion. Enough, it is 
hoped, will be said to help the beginner. Experience will soon 
lead to an ever increasing proficiency — and with this will come an 
ever increasing conviction that the identification of birds, 
during flight, is an extremely difficult task. Whoever essays it 
should, whenever possible, supplement his efforts by the aid of 
a pair of good field-glasses. These, indeed, are indispensable. 

The small perching birds are, perhaps, the most difficult to 
name at sight, and this because their flight presents so little to 
distinguish one species from another. All fly with rapid wing- 
beats, alternating with a period during which the wings are 
practically closed, causing the body to travel forward on a rapidly 



73 



descending curve in the interval between the wing-beats. This 
gives rise to what is known as an " undulating " flight. But the 
large passerines, like the crows, differ conspicuoulsy in their method 
of progress. With them the wing beats relatively slowly, so that 
its shape can be readily seen ; and their course is direct — hence 
the familiar saying " straight as the crow flies." Further, the 
inner webs of the outer primary quills are, what is called 
" emarginate," that is to say, the width of the web is suddenly 
reduced towards the tip of the feather, so that the outstretched 
wing has a conspicuously fringed appearance, as may be seen at a 
glance at the beautiful pen-and-ink sketches on another page. 
The eagles and falcons have similar emarginations. 

But to return for a moment to the smaller passerines. 
There are very few of our native species which could be dis- 
tinguished in the field by their flight alone. For the most part 
one has to rely on this and clues afforded by characteristic 
markings : while a further aid is afforded by at least a slight 
knowledge of the haunts of birds. One would not expect to find 
a wheat-ear in a wood, or a wren in a reed-bed. 

The wagtails are among the easiest of the " undulating " 
fliers to distinguish, if only because of the great length of the 
tail. The pied-wagtail, with its black and white plumage — or 
black, grey, and white in the winter— can be identified at a 
glance. And so too, may the yellow, and the grey wagtails. 



74 



The last named has the longest tail of all, and is further marked 
by his beautiful grey back and bright sulphur abdomen and 
under tail coverts. All have white feathers in the tail. The 
pipits and skylark, like the wagtails, have very long inner 
secondaries, but they can never be confused on this account. 
They can never be mistaken for wagtails, but on the other hand, 
the several species can be distinguished, when on the wing, only 
by long practice. 

The chaffinch, greenfinch, and goldfinch are with us all the 
year round, keeping each to his favourite haunts. Most people 
know them well. But one meets even people living in the heart 
of the country, who cannot call them by name ! The cock 
chafhnch can be distinguished at once by its white " shoulders," 
and white bars across the wing, apart from the bright hues of the 
body, so well shown in the adjoining Plate. The hen has similar 
wing-marks, but lacks the bright colours of her lord. His cousin, 
the brambling — who comes to us in the winter — is just as easily 
identified by his orange-coloured shoulder patch — in place of 
white — and white rump, which is most conspicuous during flight. 
The greenfinch is marked, when in flight, by the yellow rump 
and bright yellow patches at the base of the tail feathers. Who 
could mistake the goldfinch for any one else but himself? He 
looks like a butterfly as he flutters about on the tops of tall 
thistles. The crimson and black bands on his head, the glorious 



75 



blaze of gold on his black wings, which are further marked with 
white spots, as also is his tail, make him the most gorgeous of our 
native finches. The bullfinch, again, is easy to distinguish ; 
though from his habit of haunting thickets and dense hedgerows, 
he is seldom seen. In flight you may know him by his white rump, 
rosy breast, and black head. But his mate is more soberly clad : 
though her black head and white rump, will suffice to make sure of 
her when, by good fortune, she is encountered. 

One of the commonest of what we may call " road-side " 
birds, is the yellow-hammer ; which can be recognized at once 
by the bright yellow colour of its head. As soon as it takes to 
flight the white feathers in the tail, and the chestnut rump will 
make assurance doubly sure. But in some parts of England 
one meets with another, and similar species — the cirl bunting. 
In this species, however, the male has a black throat and car- 
coverts, and an olive-grey chest-band ; while the female, lacking 
these distinctive marks, may be recognized by a brown, instead of 
a chestnut rump. When in the neighbourhood of swampy 
places and reed-beds, a look-out must be kept for the reed-bunting. 
A small bird with a black head and throat, and white collar, 
this is the male. The female will display a brown head, buff 
throat and eye-brow, and white outer tail feathers. In the 
winter time, near the sea, one may frequently come across 
the snow-bunting, which, on the wing, will at once attract 



76 




Chaffinch and Young 



attention by the large areas of white displayed in the wing 
and tail. 

The redstart, one of our summer visitors, is a bird which can 
never be mistaken. A sight of the russet-red tail alone suffices. 
But the cock has the further glory of a mantle of grey, a black head 
and russet under parts. He is fond of country rich in old 
timber, or hill-sides, where stone walls attract him. His kinsman, 
the wheatear, returns to us in the early spring ; to give an added 
charm to our bare hill-sides, and warrens, sea-cliflFs, sand-dunes, 
and waste places. If you see a small bird flying low over the 
ground, with a white rump, and black wings, you may know that 
the wheatear is before you. That delightful, restless little bird, 
the stonechat, is a near relation of the wheatear. He too, is fond 
of waste places, and heaths ; more especially such as will provide 
him with plenty of furze bushes, or ling, on the topmost twigs of 
which he loves to perch, flitting his tail and uttering his fussy 
little notes " hweet-chat, hweet-chat." On the wing you may 
tell him by his conspicuous white wing-patch, and the broad 
blaze of white on his neck, set ofT by a jet-black head. The female 
and young lack the bright chestnut on the breast. The stone- 
chat's cousin, the whinchat, may be found in similar situations, 
but he is of a more roving disposition, and may be found also in 
lowland pasture and water-meadows. More slender in form, he 
is further to be distinguished by the dark streaks down his back, 



n 



white-eye stripe, and greater amount of white at the base of the 
tail. Further, there is no white neck patch. 

Most people know the common thrush and the blackbird 
when they see them, and many country-folk, indeed, recognize 
no more. Yet there are five species in all, which may be called 
" common." They are to be distinguished, not so much by their 
flight, as by their general coloration. Neither the common 
thrush, nor the blackbird need be described here : they cannot 
easily be confounded with any other bird. But for the moment 
it might be possible, it is true, to mistake the mistle thrush for the 
more common song-thrush. It is, however, an unmistakably 
larger bird, and when on the wing appears greyer, and if seen at 
close quarters, shows white tips to the outermost tail-feathers, 
and a white underwing. On the ground, of course, there can be no 
mistaking it, on account of its much more spotted breast ; the 
spots, too, being much larger, and fan-shaped. During the 
autumn and winter there are two other thrushes which should 
be looked for. These are the fieldfare and the red-wing. The 
first-named, it is to be noted, will be found in small flocks, and if 
examined on the ground through field-glasses will be seen to have a 
slate-grey neck and rump, and chestnut-brown wings and tail ; 
while the breast is streaked instead of spotted. In flight the 
underwing is white, as in the mistle-thrush, from which it can 
easily be distinguished by its smaller size, and the absence of 



78 



white on its tail. The redwing, like the fieldfare, is gregarious. 
This is an important point to bear in mind ; since it might other- 
wise be confused, by the novice, with the song-thrush, the two 
being about the same size. But seen at rest, close quarters, there 
can be no mistake ; the redwing having a conspicuous cream- 
coloured eye-stripe, and chestnut-red flank-feathers. The under- 
wing is similarly coloured. Finally there is the ring-ousel, which, 
haunts the moorlands and rocky ravines. But it may be 
recognized at once by its conspicuous white gorget, contrasted 
with its otherwise black plumage. 

Of the forty species of British warblers there is not one 
which the most expert of our Ornithologists would venture to 
identify by the character of the flight alone. Most of these 
species, of course, are rare and accidental visitors ; many need an 
expert to distinguish them, since they represent but Continental 
Races of our own summer visitors. About ten species can be 
called common, or fairly common, in suitable localities, and the 
novice must not expect to recognize even these with anything 
Hke certainty. They have no characteristic flight, and they 
rarely do more than " flit " from one place to another. In the 
pages of this book, then, they can rightly have no place. But 
some may, perhaps, be glad of a few notes concerning one or two 
of the commoner species. The black-cap, for example, may be 
readily distinguished by its grey plumage contrasting with a 



79 



black cap — reddish brown — in the female. It has also a 
peculiarly delightful song, which some prefer to that of the night- 
ingale. This, the most celebrated of all our warblers — though 
for some inscrutable reason some ornithologists appear to regard 
it as a near ally of the redstarts and robin ! — frequents woods 
with thick undergrowth and tangled hedgerows, and hence, is 
seldom seen, but may be recognised by the uniform russet-brown 
coloration of its upper parts, shading into pale chestnut on the 
tail, and the ash-grey of the under parts, shading into white on the 
throat and abdomen. The whitethroat may be recognized by 
the fine white ring round the eye, grey head, brown upper parts, 
and huffish pink breast, set off by the conspicuous white throat, 
from which the bird derives its name. It is perhaps the only 
British warbler which can really be distingiaished during flight, 
and this onlv because the outermost pair of tail feathers are almost 
wholly white. It may be looked for in hedges and thickets, as 
well as on gorse-covered commons. Its near relation, the lesser- 
whitethroat, differs in its smaller size, whiter under parts, and the 
absence of the rufous edges to the secondaries, which are one of the 
distinguishing features of the com.mon whitethroat. The garden- 
warbler is much more frequently heard than seen, its song, a 
continuous, sweet, and mellow warble, rivalling that of the 
blackcap, though softer and less varied. Haunting shrubberies 
and gardens, it is yet the mere ghost of a bird, its uniform brown 



80 












Sea Gull. 
Hooded Crow. 

G.\NNET. 

Golden Eagle. 
Snipe. 



6. Redshank. 

7. Nightjar. 

8. B.ARN Owl. 
(). Rook. 

10. Cuckoo. 



upper parts, and brownish-buff under-parts, coupled with its 
shy, retiring disposition make it exceedingly difRcult to see. 
Three other tantalizing little members of this numerous tribe 
are the chiffchaff, willow-warbler, and wood-warbler. Tantalizing 
because so frequently seen during the summer months, so much 
alike, and yet, somehow, different. The novice has no name for 
them ; the expert can only tell them by a combination of 
characters, and their contrasts. He is guided rather by their 
notes and habits, than by their appearance, so closely do they 
resemble one another ! The chiffchaff, as its name suggests, 
is to be identified by its song — Chiff-chafif, chiff-chaff, chiff, 
chiff-chaff-chiff — uttered from the top of a high tree. The singer 
is too small to be seen, so that he who would discover what manner 
of bird is the songster, must watch in the direction of the sound, 
till the singer elects to descend. The willow-warbler is a rather 
larger bird with a tinge of yellow in his plumage. Also it is less 
restricted to woods and coppices, and has a sweet, indescribable 
warble. The wood-warbler is the largest of this trio — from the 
tip of his beak to the tip of his tail he may measure as much as 
five inches — and is also the most brightly coloured. Above he 
is greenish, with an eyebrow of sulphur-yellow, and a sulphur- 
yellow breast and throat. Since he is rarely to be found, save in 
woods of beech and oak, he will, on this account, the more easily 
be distinguished from his cousin, the chiff-chaff and the willow- 



Si 



warbler. This fact again, can be taken into account when the 
identity of one or other of these two is in question. 

The warblers are essentially birds of the country-side — 
thev cannot abide the busy haunts of men, who seem unable to 
settle anywhere without setting up hideous tramways and ugly 
buildings. Kindly Nature is crowded out. The garden, hedgerow, 
and shady woods are the chosen haunts of the warblers, though 
some prefer the reed-grown stream, or the thickets round quiet 
pools. The reed and the sedge-warbler will be found here, but by 
no means easily so, for after the manner of their tribe they love 
seclusion. To find the reed-warbler you must go to reed-beds, 
or to osier-beds, and there watch for a little bird, chestnut-brown 
above, and white below. But for his constantly babbling chatter 
— " churra, churra, churra " — you would never, probably, find 
him. Guided, however, by his song, you may succeed in 
finding him nimbly climbing up and down the reed stems. Very 
like him is the rarer marsh-warbler : but, for your guidance, note 
that the marsh warbler has a really melodious song, and is even 
more likely to be found in swampy thickets of meadow-sweet 
than the reed-beds. The sedge-warbler, though showing a decided 
preference for streams fringed by osier-beds and thickets, is more 
of a wanderer than the other two, since tangled hedgerows, and 
thickets, at a distance from the water will often suffice him. 
You may know him by the fact that he is of a dark brown colour 



82 



above, streaked with a paler shade of brown, while the under 
parts are white, tinged on the breast and flanks with creamy buff. 

Ornithologists rarely concern themselves with anything but 
the superficial characters of birds. Not even the structure of the 
feathers interests them, but only their coloration. Hence it is that 
they have come, quite commonly, to regard the gold-crest, or 
" gold-crested wren," as it is sometimes called, as one of the tit- 
mouse group ! There is not even the remotest justification for 
this view. It is an indubitable warbler. A glance at the coloured 
Plate will render any description of its appearance un- 
necessarv. From autumn to spring vou mav find it in most parts 
of England and Scotland — save the extreme north — hunting in 
hedgerows and woods for food. During the breeding season it 
favours coniferous woods. Along the south and east of England, 
one may also meet with a closely similar species — the fire-crest. 
But while in the gold-crest the crown is of a bright lemon-yellow, 
in the fire-crest it is of a bright red-orange hue, while the side 
of the head is marked by a white stripe bordered with black. 

The gold-crest is our smallest British bird. The ranks of 
our resident " gold-crests," in the autumn, are swollen by 
immigrants from northern Europe, who seek shelter with us 
because unable to withstand the rigours of the more northern 
winter. In the matter of size the gold, and fire-crested wrens 
agree, measuring but a trifle more than three and a half inches 



83 



from the tip of the beak to the tip of the tail ! By the way, the 
shape of the beak should be carefully noted. It is that of a 
typical warbler. 

It may be urged that this description of the warblers might well 
have been omitted from these pages, since, in regard to " Flight," 
nothing whatever can be said, save that they " fly." There 
would indeed, be some justification for such criticism, but it is 
to be remembered that this volume is written, not for the expert, 
but for the novice, who, because he needs a few concrete examples 
of the hopelessness of expecting to identify every bird he may 
encounter by its flight, and of the methods he must occasionally 
adopt, when seeking to name a bird which will not come out into 
the open. His course of training, and discovery, wiU be much 
shortened by the realization that birds by no means always reveal 
their presence by taking long flights. 

What is true of the warblers, in this regard, is true also of our 
numerous species of tit-mice. We do not distinguish between them 
in the field by their flight, but by their coloration. 

But since these are such confiding little birds, coming to our 
very windows during the winter months, for food, a few notes 
concerning them may be acceptable. The commonest of all is 
the little blue-tit, or " tom-tit," as it is so often called. Its 
beautiful cobalt-blue crown, blue back, wings, and tail, white face, 
and yellow breast, are familiar to us all. Its larger relative, the 



84 



great tit-mouse — the largest British tit-mouse — bears a close general 
resemblance to the smaller species, but is readily distinguished, 
not only by its greater size, but by the broad band of black running 
down the abdomen. Its flight, as of all the tit-mice, is weak, and 
as it were, uncertain, confined to short passages from tree to tree. 
The coal tit-mouse and the marsh tit-mouse are seldom recognized 
as distinct species, by the novice. They are very soberly coloured 
little birds, the coal-tit being of an olive-grey, tinged with olive- 
buf?, while the sides of the body are buff : the head and throat 
are black, relieved by a broad patch of white on each side and down 
the nape of the neck. The marsh-tit is, to all intents and 
purposes, of the same coloration, but differs conspicuously in 
lacking the white patches. The tiny longtailed-titmouse cannot 
possibly be mistaken for any other bird. Its delicate hues of 
pink and grey, and extremely long tail, make comparisons with 
anv other species unnecessary. 

Where, during the winter, small birds are tempted to come to 
a tray of nuts and seeds, placed outside the window, that charm- 
ing little bird the nuthatch — a near relation of the titmice — will 
commonly be among the guests. It cannot be mistaken for any 
other British bird, its form and coloration being, alike, distinctive. 
Its upper parts are of a delicate blue-grey, its under parts buff, 
passing into chestnut on the flanks. The throat is white, while 
there is a black line from the beak to the eye, and beyond, spread- 



85 



ing as it goes. A relatively large beak, and strikingly short tail, 
are features as conspicuous as is the coloration. Its flight is slow 
and undulating. 

Another little bird which, during the winter, associates with 
the titmice, is the tree-creeper. It is never seen on the wing, save 
when it is flitting from one tree to another, and then its course is 
obliquely downwards — from the upper branches of one tree to the 
base of another. This it proceeds to ascend immediately on alight- 
ing, by jerky leaps. Its coloration is soberness itself — mottled 
brown above and silvery white below. The tail, it is to be noted, 
is formed of stiff, pointed feathers, like those of the woodpecker, 
and, as in that bird, is used in climbing. 

There is scarcely a garden — save in such as are within the 
area of a big town — which, during the summer, is not haunted by 
a little grey and white bird, with a most characteristic flight — 
a sudden sally into the air to seize some insect, sometimes even 
white butterflies, and an instant return to the same perch. This 
is the spotted flycatcher. In Wales, Devonshire, Cumberland, 
and Westmorland, one may be fairly sure of meeting with the 
pied-flycatcher. He is, so to speak, a black and white edition of 
his relative, the spotted flycatcher — but the black areas in the 
female are represented by brown. There are, however, notable 
differences in the method of hunting, in the two species ; 
for the pied-flycatcher rarely returns to the same perch 



86 




Gold Crested Wrens 



after his upward flight into the air, and he often feeds on the 
ground. 

In the straggling hedgerows of the wooded districts of south 
and central England, and in Wales, one may often come across the 
red-backed shrike ; a very handsome bird, with pointed wings, 
long tail, and low swooping flights. His red back will alone 
distinguish him. No other British bird wears such a mantle. 
And this is set off by a grey crown and nape, and black patches 
on the sides of the head. The topmost twig of a bush, or hedge, 
where he can sight his prey from afar, are his favourite perches. 
On the east coast of England, during the autumn, one may some- 
times see the great-grev shrike, distinguished readily by his large 
size, fan-shaped tail, and grey coloration, relieved by black ear- 
coverts, black wings and tail, " blazed " with white, and white 
underparts. His flight is undulating and irregular, while just 
before alighting he gives a peculiar upward sweep. 

Strangely enough, not only country boys and girls, but their 
fathers and mothers, not only confuse swallows and martins with 
one another, but these with the swift ! Yet they are readily 
distinguishable. All, it is true, have long, pointed wings, and 
forked tails : but their coloration is very different. The swallow 
has the most deeplv forked tail of them all, and his steel-blue 
back, red throat, and rufous buff-and-cream under parts are 
unmistakable identification marks. The martin mav be distin- 



87 



guished at once by the conspicuous white rump patch, and pure 
white underparts. These are the signs by which they may be 
recognized when on the wing — and they are more often seen thus 
than at rest. The sand-martin is a much smaller bird, has a less 
markedly forked tail, and is of a uniform pale brown above, and 
white below, but with a brown band across the chest. The swift 
is not even related to the swallow-tribe. On the wing — and very 
few people ever see him otherwise — he is very different. The wing- 
beat is extremely rapid and intermittent. While in its shape the 
wing differs in its extreme length and narrowness. The flight is 
extremely swift — hence the name of the bird. Not its least 
impressive feature is its wonderful flexibility. Who has not 
watched, with delight, a troop of these birds sweeping down the 
village street, now skimming the ground, now sweeping upward 
and away, round the church tower, accompanied by wild, 
exultant screams, as though they were bubbling over with vitality. 
When high up they look like so many animated bows and arrows — 
the arrows being, perhaps, somewhat short and thick. The swift, 
it is worth remembering, is a near kinsman of the humming-bird, 
which also has a long narrow wing. Both alike agree in this 
peculiarity — an upper arm bone of excessive shortness, and a hand 
of excessive length. No other birds approach them in this. The 
only other bird which has wings quite so ribbon-like, when 
extended, is the albatross — one of our rarest British birds. But 



here the proportions of the wing are reversed, for the upper 
arm bone is of great length, while the hand is relatively 
short. 

There is something inexpressibly soothing about the twilight 
of a summer's evening. Most birds are abed. The swift can be 
heard high up, the " woolly bats, with beady eyes " arc silently 
flitting all round one, turning and twisting as no bird ever turns. 
But for the chorus of the swifts, like black furies, and heard only 
at intervals, and faintly, all is silence, relieved, perchance, by the 
drowsy hum of a blundering dor-beetle. Then, suddenly, if one 
be near some gorse, or bracken covered common, the stillness is 
broken by a strange " churring," like a bubbling whistle, rising 
and falling in volume. This may be followed by a loud " clap ". 
And yet the source of these strange notes cannot be located, nor 
can any living thing be seen to which they could be attributed. 
But keep careful watch. Presently there may emerge from the 
gathering gloom a long-winged, long-tailed bird, travelling at 
speed, with a twisting flight, and deliberate wing-beats, alternating 
with long glide on motionless pinions. As it passes one may 
notice white spots on wings and tail. This is the nightjar : a bird 
of ill omen among the aged inhabitants of the country-side, for 
they will assure you that it is guilty of sucking the milk of cows and 
goats. Hence, it is commonly known as the " goatsucker." 
Poor bird, it is quite innocent of such misdeeds, for though it has 



an enormous mouth, armed on either side with long bristles, it 
feeds onlv on moths and beetles. 

If you are fortunate, your vigil in the gloaming mav be re- 
warded by a sight of yet other night-birds. Out of some hollow 
tree, or swooping round the barn, may come a ghostly form, 
borne on absolutely silent wings : but with a reeling, bouyant 
flight, which is unmistakable — this is the barn owl. If vou are 
very fortunate, you may hear its blood-curdling screech. Once 
heard you will never forget it ! His cousin, the tawny owl, it is 
whose musical, if doleful " hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-o " has so commonly 
been misrepresented by poets — and others — as " to-whit-tu-woo." 
Its flight is slower and its wings rounder than in the barn owl, 
and furthermore, it lacks the glistening satin-white underparts 
of that bird. But its coloration and general appearance are well- 
shown in the coloured illustration. 

The other species of owls we may reckon as fairly common 
residents with us. They are the long and the short-eared owls. 
But they are very rarely to be seen on the wing in daylight. Each 
has the habit, when excited, of bringing the wings together 
smartly over the back, so as to produce a sound likened by some 
to the word " bock." 

Few birds have figured so largely in our literature, perhaps, 
as the cuckoo. Though heard by all, he is seen by few : and this 
because so manv people fail to recognize the charming wastrel 



90 



when they see him. In general appearance he recalls the 
sparrowhawk. I have known even game-keepers confuse the 
two. But the cuckoo is much paler on the back, and the bars 
of the breast are finer. On the wing he is much slower than the 
sparrowhawk ; his wings are shorter, and his tail is tipped with 
white. Immature birds may be recognized by their clove-brown 
coloration, and a large white patch at the nape of the neck. 

One of the most brilliantly coloured of all our native birds is 
the kingfisher. Small streams and quiet pools are its favourite 
haunts. A glance will suffice to identify it at close quarters, 
but even if one catches sight of its fleeting form at too great a 
distance to see its wonderful coloration, it can be distinguished 
by its extremely rapid and direct flight, and curiously shuttle- 
shaped form : an appearance due to the shortness of its tail, as 
may be seen by a reference to the excellent coloured Plate. 

The identification of birds in flight will be rendered easier 
for the novice if he makes a practice of " expecting " to find 
particular birds in particular places. That is to say, the haunts of 
birds are governed by their stomachs — they must not stray far 
from the source of their food. In a wood, then, vou may 
" expect " to find woodpeckers — though you will often be dis- 
appointed, for they are by no means always to be seen. But the 
task of identification will be easier if one has a mental picture 
ready of the birds appropriate to the place. 



91 



The green woodpecker, our largest native species, often 
betrays itself by its remarkable cry, reminiscent of a laugh — 
" ha, ha, ha," and " plcu, pleu, pleu." Keep quite still, and 
presently, as likely as not, it will suddenly make its appearance 
with a rapid, undulating flight. As it alights on some neighbour- 
ing tree-trunk, its identity will be finally established by its green 
back and wings, yellow rump, and crimson crown. It ascends 
the tree by jerky leaps. Where ant-hills abound it may often be 
seen on the ground, moving about with awkward hops, exploring 
the hills for ants. The greater and lesser spotted woodpecker 
may also sometimes be seen here, especially if there is much old 
timber about. In spring its presence is often made known by a 
peculiar drumming sound — ^never forgotten when once heard — 
made by excessively rapid blows with its beak on the trunk, 
or branch of a tree. On the wing it may be recognized by its 
" dipping " flight, and strikingly piebald appearance. At close 
quarters the strongly contrasted black and white plumage is 
relieved by crimson undertail-coverts, and a crimson crown. 
The lesser-spotted woodpecker is a much smaller bird — about the 
size of a sparrow, or chaffinch — and is barred with black and 
white ; there is a patch of crimson on the head of the male. It 
has a habit of keeping more to the upper branches of the tree 
than the other species : but, like its greater cousin, it " drums " 
on the tree during the spring, but less loudly. Its spring cry, 



92 




Great Spotted Woodpeckers 



" pee-pee-pee," is like that of the wryneck. This is a near relation 
of the woodpeckers, but very different in coloration, being 
beautifully mottled and vermiculated with grey and brown. 
But for its spring cry, just alluded to, it would escape notice 
altogether, so closely does it match the bough it is perched upon. 
Unlike the woodpeckers its tail-feathers are not developed to form 
stiff, pointed spines. This is accounted for by the fact that, 
though it ascends tree-trunks readily, it does not hammer at the 
bark with its beak, and so does not need stiff tail-feathers to 
afford leverage. Its flight is slow and hesitating. It is com- 
monest, it may be remarked, on the south-east of England. 



93 




Drumming Snipe. 



95 



CHAPTER VII. 



How to tell Birds on the Wing 

(continued) . 
" The seamew's lonely laughter 
Flits down the flowing wave ; 
The green scarts follow after 
The surge where cross-tides rave." — Fiona Macleod. 

Falcons — golden eagle — harriers and sparrowhawk — The heron — The cormorant, 
shag, and gannet — The petrels — Guillemots, razorbills, and puffins — The ducks — The 
great crested grebe and dabchick — The pigeons — The " plover tribe " — The gulls 
and terns — The game birds. 

OUR native birds of prey, the owls and hawks, have been so 
harrassed by game-keepers that many species are now 
exterminated, while others are but rarely seen. Some, however, 
in favoured localities still remain to us. At one time the owls 
and hawks were believed to be nearly related : they were 
distinguished as the " Nocturnal " and " Diurnal " birds of prey. 
We now know that they are not in the remotest degree related. 
The owls, indeed, are closely related to the nightjars. They 
have been already discussed here. The hawk tribe must now 
have their turn. 

The one most commonly seen to-day is the kestrel, which is 
really a falcon, not a " hawk." No bird is so easily identified on 



97 



the wing. And this because of its habit of hovering in mid-air 
as though suspended from the sky by some invisible thread, 
while it searches the earth far below for stray mice. The kestrel's 
lordly relative, the peregrine-falcon, is now-a-days only to be 
seen in a few favoured spots, out in the wilds — on beetling cliffs 
washed by the restless sea, or inland precipices. Those who have 
the good fortune to see it at rest may know it by its large size, 
strongly barred under-parts, dark blue-grey back and wings, and 
dark moustachial stripe. On the wing it is a joy to watch, for its 
flight impresses one as something irresistible : something from 
which there can be no escape, so swift is it, and so terrible in its 
directness and strength. A few rapid beats of its long pointed 
wings, then a long glide on motionless pinions, and it is swallowed 
up in the distance. On the moors of Scotland it is regarded 
with cordial dislike, because of the terror it spreads among the 
grouse. Hence, unhappily, every man's hand is against it. 

The little hobby is another of our falcons which is remorse- 
lessly shot down by the game-keepers, who, all too commonly, 
lack both knowledge and discretion. In appearance it closely 
resembles the peregrine, and its flight is similar. It feeds chiefly 
on small birds, dragon-flies, and beetles. You may hope to find 
it — generally in vain — in well-wooded districts, from April to 
September, in the southern counties of England. In the north of 
England and Scotland, if Fortune favours, you may find the merlin ; 



our smallest British falcon ; the male scarcely exceeds a black- 
bird in size. Moors and the heath-covered brows of sea-clifTs 
are perhaps its favourite haunts. Its flight is swift, bouyant, 
and low. Unlike the hobbv, gliding movements are not con- 
spicuous. The male is of a slate-blue, and has a broad black 
band across the tail. The female is larger than her mate, dark 
brown on the back and wings, and white, streaked with brown, 
below. It feeds almost entirely on small birds, but varies this 
diet with beetles and dragon-flies. 

Wherever there are deer-forests in Scotland, even to-day, — 
but nowhere else in Great Britain — may you count on seeing the 
golden-eagle. And it is a sight to gladden the eyes. Its great 
size, broad wings, and wide-spread, upturned, primaries, are 
unmistakable, when seen on the wing — and it is rarely that you 
will see it else. 

Those who cannot contrive to visit the haunts of the golden- 
eagle may find ample compensation in watching the flight of the 
common buzzard in Wales, the Devonian peninsula, and the 
Lake District. Though time was when it might be seen all over 
England, wherever woods abounded. Its flight, when hunting, 
strikes one as somewhat slow and heavy. In fine weather, how- 
ever, as if for the mere delight of the exercise, it will mount 
heaven-wards in great sweeping spirals, holding its broad wings 
almost horizontally, and spread so that the primaries stand widely 



99 



apart for half their length, and in this joyous movement they will 
remain aloft for hours on end. 

But for the untiring efforts of the Royal Society for the 
Protection of Birds, none of our larger birds of prey — save, 
perhaps, the golden eagle, which is carefully cherished in the deer- 
forests — would now be left to us. The case of our harriers seemed 
hopeless. But, thanks to a zealous protection, a remnant remains. 

The harriers are in many ways extremely interesting birds. 
In appearance, when closely examined, they present one remark- 
able feature. And this is found in the curious arrangement of 
the feathers of the face which radiate from the eye as a centre, 
as in the owls, to form a "facial disc." They are all large birds, of 
slender build, and have a habit of flying close to the ground 
with their long, slender legs dangling, crossing and re-crossing 
the same area till they are sure they have examined it thoroughly. 
Frogs, eggs, small birds, and voles form their principal food. 
Every now and again they will rise and circle round at a con- 
siderable height, seeking a new feeding ground. 

The marsh-harrier is our largest harrier, and has rounded 
wings, and slower wing-beats than the others, from which it is 
further readily distinguished by its chocolate brown coloration, 
cream-coloured head, and grey tail and secondaries, which 
contrast strongly with the black primaries. The hen-harrier 
breeds only in the Orkneys and the Outer Hebrides. It is dis- 



tinguished by its grey coloration and pure white rump-patch. 
Montagu's harrier is a somewhat smaller bird, and has black bars 
on the secondaries. In flight it is more graceful and buoyant 
than its relatives, and this is accomplished by three or four wing- 
beats, alternating with a long glide on half-raised pinions. It, 
again, nests annually in East Anglia, thanks to protection. 

There remains but one other bird of prey to mention here, 
and this is the sparrow-hawk. It may be easily recognized during 
flight bv its short, rounded wings and long tail. The female, 
which is much larger than her mate, has the under parts distinctly 
barred. The breast of the male is similarly marked, but the bars, 
being of a pale rufous, or rust-colour, and much narrower, are less 
conspicuous. It has a very rapid and gliding flight, just above 
the ground, or along hedgerows, which it scours in its search for 
small birds. 

There may be many who will fare forth to find the harrier 
on the wing. If they succeed they will indeed be fortunate. But 
there is one bird that most certainlv will be seen in the "harrier- 
country," and that is the heron. There can be no mistaking him. 
He may be found, a large, grey bird, standing contemplative, 
knee-deep by the river's margin, or in some ditch, awaiting the 
moment to strike at some unwarv fish, frog, or w-ater-vole. The 
moment he discovers that he is being watched he will be on the 
move. He rises heavily, almost awkwardly, with flapping wings 



and outstretched neck : his legs dangHng down. But no sooner 
is he well on the way than he hauls in his neck till the head is 
drawn close to the body, and straightens out his legs till they 
extend behind him like a pair of streamers. Henceforth his flight 
is easy and graceful enough. This is the bird which was so much 
prized in the old days of " hawking." The invention of the gun 
ended this most fascinating form of sport. 

Let us turn now, for a little while, from moor and wood 
and fen, to the sea-shore, and, for choice, to a rock-bound coast 
with towering cliffs. Here yo\i will find a num.ber of species 
which will never be found inland. They love the sea, whether it 
be shimmering in the sun of a blazing June day, smooth as a mill- 
pond, or in a fury of thundering billows, lashed by a roaring gale 
in bleak December. The bottle-green shag is one of these. You 
cannot mistake him. Perched on a rock he sits upright, and, in 
the spring, wears a crest upon his head. On the water he floats 
with the body well down, and every few moments disappears 
with a spring into the depths, for his never-ending meal of fish and 
crabs. His flight, just above the water, is strong and rapid. 
His cousin, the cormorant, is a conspicuously larger bird, with a 
bronze-coloured plumage. In the breeding season his head has a 
hoary appearance, due to the presence of numerous filamentous 
feathers, known as " filoplumes " ; while the throat is white, 
and there is a large white patch on the thigh. He has a habit. 




/ . Partridge. 

2. Gannel. 

3. Whitethroal. 

4. Red-Backed Shrike. 

5. Magpie. 



6. Goldfinch. 

7. Great Crested Grebe. 

8. Buzzard. 

9. Puffin. 

W. Grey Wagtail. 



after a full meal, of sitting on some convenient perch with wings 
spread wide open and open-mouthed, apparently as an aid to 
digestion. But he is by no means so wedded to the sea as the 
shag. Rivers and inland waters will serve him as well as the sea. 

The gannet, though very nearly related to the cormorant, 
is a bird of very different habits and appearance. When adult 
it is snow white in plumage, with blue beak and feet, and can be 
mistaken for no other bird. Its peculiar mode of fishing was 
described in Chapter II. 

Finally, there arc two most interesting features of these birds 
which are worth remembering. To wit, the toes are all enclosed 
within one web, and they have no nostrils, and but the merest 
apology for a tongue. 

And now we come to the petrels. These are for the most 
part nocturnal birds, spending the day in burrows. They would, 
therefore, find no place in these pages but for the fact that one 
may occasionally be seen at sea when one is fishing off the shore in 
a boat. The commonest is that known as the Manx shearwater. 
Rather larger than a pigeon, it may be distinguished by its flight, 
which is rapid ; the wings presenting periods of rapid quivering, 
alternating with long sailing with fixed, widely spread, narrow 
pinions. At one moment one sees only the deep black of the back, 
the next the pure white of the under parts as the birds turn now 
this way, now that, holding the outstretched wings at right angles 



103 



to the surface during the turn, so that one wing barely misses the 
waves, while the other points skywards. 

Sometimes too, one may see the little " Mother Careys' 
chicken." A tiny sprite sooty-black in colour, and with a white 
rump patch, it often flies so close to the water that it is able to 
patter along the surface with its feet, as it flies. 

The fulmar petrel is indeed a child of the sea, for, except in 
the breeding season, it never comes to land. But at sea you may 
have the good fortune to see it off the east coast of Great Britain, 
and the north and west of Ireland — and in winter oflF the south and 
west coasts of England. Though in coloration resembling a 
common gull, it may always be distinguished, when on the wing, 
by its narrow wings, curved like a bow — not sharply angled as 
those of a gull, and the primaries are not black-tipped. Its flight 
is strong and powerful : slow wing-beats alternating with long 
glides. On far St. Kilda, in the breeding season, you may find 
them in great hosts. For some unexplained reason they are 
increasing in numbers, and may now also be found breeding in the 
Shetlands, Hebrides, and Orkneys. 

Some who read these pages may, perchance, be stimulated 
by a desire to enlarge their acquaintance with our sea-birds by 
spending a day at sea in a small row-boat. For choice, one of the 
larger breeding-stations should be visited. Horn Head, Donegal ; 
St. Kilda, The Scilly Islands, the Bempton cliffs, Yorkshire ; 



104 



The Fame Islands, Fowlsheugh, Stonehaven; the Orkneys, the 
Shetlands, or the Hebrides, are all renowned resorts. Here are 
thrilling sights indeed. Guillemots, razor-bills, and puffins are 
congregated in swarms, which must be seen to be believed. Few 
birds are more easy to tell at sight as they scuttle past one on 
the way down to the water from the cliffs, or returning laden with 
food for their young. The puffin is easily the most conspicuous, 
since he flies with his little yellow legs stuck out on each side of his 
apology for a tail. And for a further token there is his great red 
and vellow beak. The guillemot has a sooty brown head and 
neck — in his breeding dress — slate-grey back and white under 
parts, and a pointed beak ; while the razor-bill, similarly coloured, 
is to be distinguished by the narrow white lines down his highly 
compressed beak. By good fortune, the white-winged black 
guillemot may be found among the host. His white wings con- 
trasting with the black plumage of the rest of the body, and his 
red legs, suffice to identify him. 

On the Fame Islands, as well as on the Orkneys and Shetlands, 
you may be sure of finding the Eider-duck, one of the most singular, 
and most beautiful members of the duck family. It is singular 
because of its coloration ; the under parts of the body being of a 
velvet black, while the upper parts are white, thus exactly 
reversing the normal distribution of these " colours." The rosy 
hue which suffuses the fore-part of the breast, and the bright 



105 



green patch on the cheek, make up an unforgetable scheme of 
coloration. The female is very soberly clad, being of a dark 
brown, barred with black. A further, and valuable, identification 
mark is furnished by her beak, which, like that of her lord, seems 
unusually long, owing to the sloping forehead. The flight is slow 
and close down to the water. 

The sheld-duck is another strikingly coloured species that is 
commonly seen on sandy shores and estuaries. There can be no 
mistaking it. On the wing it has a conspicuously pied appearance, 
while the flight seems slow and rather laboured. Seen at rest, 
and fairly near, a broad chestnut band across the breast, and a 
black band down its middle will be noticed, while the black head 
and neck are admirably contrasted with a coral red beak. The 
legs are pale pink. In winter, on parts of the east coast, they 
sometimes form flocks of several hundreds. The heavy-bodied, 
black ducks, one often sees scurrying along, close to the water, 
sometimes in immense flocks, are common scoters. The male is 
entirely black, with an apricot yellow beak-patch, the female is a 
dark brown, with grey cheeks. 

Though the duck-tribe is represented by a considerable 
number of species, the number likely to be seen by the casual 
wanderer is very few ; for these birds mostlv keep well under 
cover during the day. In addition to the three species just 
described there are at least two others which are not infrequently 



1 06 




1. Peregrine Falcon. 

2. Kestrel. 

3. Merlin. 

4. Golden Eagle. 



5. Montagu's Harrier. 

6. Goshawk. 

7. Osprev. 

8. Sparrow Hawk. 



seen, out In the open, during the day. One of these is the 
goosander, which, on the lochs and rivers of Scotland, is common ; 
and it is also frequently encountered in similar situations in the 
northern counties of England. You may know him by his bottle- 
green head, which bears a crest, black back, and white wings. 
His breast is suffused with a wonderful pale salmon colour — which 
fades away within a few hours of death, leaving the breast white. 
The beak is long, pointed, and coral red. Moreover, its edges are 
armed with horny teeth. For he is a fish-eater, capturing his 
prey by diving. On the wing he is very fast, but he rises from 
the water but slowlv. His mate has a reddish-brown head and 
neck, and a grev back. The second species referred to is the 
mallard, though it is onlv very occasionally, and by accident, 
met with during the day. Its appearance has been so well repre- 
sented in the coloured Plate that there is no need for description. 
When on the margins of lakes, large ponds, or slow-moving 
streams, keep a look-out for two very remarkable divers — the 
great-crested grebe and the dabchick. Both float low in the water, 
and may be identified at once from the fact that they have no 
tail. The great-crested grebe has a conspicuous dark chestnut- 
red frill round his neck, which can be set out like an Elizabethan 
ruff, at will, though this is rarely done save in the courting season. 
The dabchick is a small bird — rather smaller than a pigeon 
— and has no erectile ornaments. The " grebe-flight " is 



107 



shown in the coloured drawings, and it has further been already 
described. They will vanish beneath the water with startling 
suddenness, and remain below for a surprising length of time ; 
emerging at last far from the spot at which the dive was taken. 
One of the commonest birds of the countrv-side is the ring- 
dove, or woodpigeon. He is the largest of our pigeons, and mav 
further be distinguished by the white half-ring round his neck. 
His flight scarcely needs to be described, for it differs in no essentials 
from the pigeons of our dove-cotes. His courtship flight has 
already been described here. The stock-dove is not quite so 
conspicuous, but may be readily distinguished from the fact that 
the neck has no white patch, while the out-spread wings are 
marked by an imperfect bar of black. It is a bird, by the way, 
which shows a strange diversity of taste in the selection of the 
site for its nursery — a rabbit-burrow, a hole in a tree, an old 
squirrels drey, or the cross-beams in an old church tower ! The 
rock-dove haunts deep caverns worn out of the cliffs, both inland 
and on the coast. But one can never be certain that one is 
watching really wild birds. Certain it is that most of the 
" rock-doves " one sees are domesticated birds run wild. This 
is the ancestor of our dove-cote birds, from some of which, 
those with a white rump and two black wing-bars, they cannot be 
distinguished. It is on account of this ancestry that our 
domesticated pigeons never alight in trees. They are inherently 



io8 



cliff dwellers. The turtle dove is a summer visitor to the British 
Islands. The cinnamon brown of its back, bluish ash-grey head, 
wing-coverts and rump, the patch of black on its neck, and the 
fan-shaped tail, tipped with white, readily distinguish it from 
the other three species just described. 

Where the summer holidays are spent by the sea — in places 
where there are no bands, piers, " promenades," and other 
abominations of " civilization " — one may spend delicious hours 
watching some of our " wading-birds." On such parts of the 
coast as have a rockv shore one may be sure of finding the hand- 
some oystercatcher, a black-and-w^hite bird, with a long red beak, 
and flesh-coloured legs. His loud, shrill " whccp-whccp " seems to 
harmonize perfectly with his wild surroundings. His striking 
coloration, shrill note, and swift powerful flight, make con- 
fusion with any other bird impossible. One is also sure to find the 
ringed-plover. A little bird with a pale brown back, a white 
forehead with a bar of black above it, black face, and a black 
band at the base of the white neck. The beak is short, and the 
legs yellow. The wings, in flight, are long and pointed, and 
marked with a white bar. The outer tail-feathers, spread 
during flight, are also white. It runs rapidiv about, swiftly 
picking up sand-hoppers and other small creatures, and always 
travels in small flocks. Commonly associated with the ringed- 
plover one finds the dunlin, grey above, white below, and with a 



109 



long, black beak. The peculiarities of its flight, and its strikingly 
different summer dress have already been described here. 
Sometimes you will meet with the common sandpiper ; a small 
bird, about the size of a thrush, who runs on rather long legs, 
and constantly flicks his tail up and down. His coloration is of 
a bronzy-brown, above, more or less conspicuously marked with 
darker bars, and white below. In flight he shows long, pointed 
wings, and a tail broadly tipped with white and barred with 
black. More often you will find him on the banks of streams. 
His cousin, the redshank, a much larger bird, has already been 
described here in regard to his spring love-making. Later 
in the year he may be distinguished, when on the wing, by the large 
white rump-patch, white secondaries, white tail, barred with 
black, long pointed wings, and long, red legs. 

The wary curlew, already referred to, is really a moorland 
bird, but spends the autumn and winter by the shore, or on the 
mud-flats of estuaries. His peculiar cry, a shrill " cour-lie," 
readily distinguishes him. Added to this is his large size, brown 
coloration, and long, curved beak. On the wing, the rump and 
upper tail-coverts are conspicuously white. 

The " waders," sometimes collectively referred to as the 
" plover-tribe," are represented in the British Islands by a very 
long list of species, of which only the commonest are mentioned 
here. Many, however, are mere casual visitors. Near allies of 



this " tribe " are the gulls and terns. The peculiarly graceful, 
elastic flight of these birds surely needs no description. Even 
town-dwellers know them well. For during the winter months 
they follow the rivers far inland. Even in grimy London they 
may be seen in hundreds during the winter months. The black- 
headed gull is by far the commonest of these winter visitors. But 
at the same time, to the uninitiated, the name " black-headed " 
must seem singularly inappropriate ; for its head is emphatically 
white. At no time, indeed, is it ever black. But keep careful 
watch of the hosts which throng the river from January, onward,, 
till they depart for their breeding quarters, and you will see them 
gradually developing a dark patch on each side of the head. And 
this slowly spreads till the whole head is of a dark sooty brown. 
Immature birds may be picked out by the presence of brown 
feathers in the wings, and a black bar across the tip of the tail. 
Here and there among them, one may see much larger birds of a 
brownish grey colour, and with black beaks and pale coloured 
legs, in place of the cherry-red of the beak and legs of the " black- 
headed " species. These are the immature stages of the greater, 
and lesser black-backed gulls ; or of the herring gull. When 
fully adult the two first-named have the back and wings of a dark 
slate colour, the rest of the plumage dazzling white. The beak 
is pale yellow, with a red spot on the angle of the lower 
jaw. During flight the wings are also black, but the 



III 



primaries have white tips. The herring gull has a pale pearl- 
grey back. 

With a strange perversity the black-headed gull is commonly 
called, by the novice, the " kittiwake." This is a totally different 
bird, rather like a herring-gull in miniature, but with a green 
beak and short, black legs. Moreover, it is rarely seen inland. 
It breeds in vast colonies on the ledges of precipitous cliffs along the 
Scottish coast and the west of Ireland. There are colonies, too, 
on Lundy, the Scilly Isles, and the Fames. 

One other gull must be mentioned here, though it is not 
common, save in the northern parts of Scotland. But it is a regular 
winter migrant down the east coast of England during the winter. 
This is Richardson's skua. You may tell it at once by its dark 
brown coloration, and long, pointed tail. It gets its living 
mostly by robbing other gulls, chasing them till they disgorge 
their latest meal, which is seized in mid-air as it falls sea-ward ! 

Finally, a word or two about the " game-birds." These are 
all birds easily distinguished by reason of their short, rounded, 
deeply convex wings, which, driven with incredible speed, 
produce a " whirring " sound — very pleasant to the ears of the 
sportsman. The flight is never continued very far. The English 
partridge may be distinguished by the horse-shoe mark on the 
breast : the French partridge by the beautiful pearl-grey colour 
of the flanks, relieved by short bars of black, and chestnut-red, 



and red legs and beak. It is also known, indeed, as the " red- 
legged " partridge. The pheasant is a far larger bird, with a long, 
pointed tail. The grouse is confined to moors. His heavy build 
and red coloration distinguish him at once. The black-cock is a 
still larger bird ; the male with a wonderful metallic, steel-blue 
plumage, and lyrate tail. His mate — -the " grey-hen " — is chest- 
nut brown, barred with black. The capercailzie is the largest of 
all, almost rivalling a turkey. His size alone suffices to distinguish 
him. Moreover, only a very few can enjoy the pleasure of gazing 
at him, for he confines himself to the coniferous woods of Scotland 



113 




Buzzard Soaring. 



115 



CHAPTER VIII. 



The Wings of Nestling Birds. 

" The blue eggs in the Robin's nest 
Will soon have wings, and beak, and breast, 
And flutter and fly away." — Longfellow. 

The wing of the unhatched bird — Of the coots and water-hen — The Hoatzin's 
wings — The wing of Archaeopteryx — Moulting — The nestling game-birds and ducks 
— Teaching the young to fly. 

AT first sight it may seem a little strange to introduce 
nestlings into a book devoted to birds in flight. But 
there are aspects of the wing of nestling birds which must, indeed, 
be borne in mind when considering the wing of the adult. 

It was pointed out, in Chapter I, that the wing of the adult 
had but three fingers and two wrist-bones. This condition 
represents the last stage in the evolution of the Avian wing. 
The wing of the nestling gives a clue to an earlier stage in its 
history. But we can get even further back than this. For if we 
examine the wing of an unhatched bird, we shall be able to get 
still nearer to the birth, and growth of the wing out of a reptilian 
fore-limb. Here as many as six wrist-bones may be found. 
And the " palm-bones," which in the adult are welded together, 



117 



are here quite separate. This stage, then, carries us back towards 
the ancestral, reptiHan, fore-Hmb used for walking, or perhaps 
for climbing. And there is another sign of this earlier, reptilian, 
period to be found in such a wing. At the tip of the thumb and 
first-linger, in unhatched ducks, game-birds, and water-hens, 
for example, you will find a small claw. By hatching-time 
the claw of the first finger will have disappeared, but it is still 
retained in the case of the duck and the water-hen. In the adults 
of all three you will rarely find more than the claw of the thumb : 
and this now serves no useful purpose whatever. 

Indeed, there seem to be only two tribes which have any use 
for wing-claws during nestling life. One of these is represented 
by the gallinules, that is to say, the coots, and water-hens, and 
their kind. You may test this whenever you have the good for- 
tune to capture a young water-hen. Place him outside the nest, 
and especially if it happens to be a little raised, you will see him 
make his way back, using feet, wing-claws, and beak. His 
wings, it will be noticed, at this stage are used as fore-legs. The 
other tribe is represented by that strange bird the hoatzin of 
the Amazon. Here the two claws are really large, and they play 
a quite important part in his early life. 

For the young hoatzin is hatched in a nursery — a crude 
nest of sticks — placed on the boughs of a tree overhanging the 
water. As soon as hatched he begins to climb about the 



ii8 




'V 



Grouse 



branches. Should he fall, by some mischance, into the water, 
he promptly swims to the bank ; and by the aid of his long 
first finger, and wing-claws, and his huge feet, soon climbs 
back. But the most wonderful part of his story is yet to come. 

So long as these youngsters can only scramble about they 
are in constant jeopardy. A wing-surface at least big enough to 
break the force of a fall is an urgent necessity. And so the 
growth of the quill-feathers is, so to speak, pushed forward with 
all possible speed. But if all the feathers grew at the same 
rate, there would speedily come a time when the outermost 
feathers would make the claw at the end of the finger useless, 
while the wing-surface, as a whole, would be insufficient. To 
obviate this difficulty, the development of the outermost feathers 
is held in abevance till the inner feathers of the hand, and the 
outermost of the forearm, have grown big enough to suffice to 
breake the force of the fall. As soon as this stage is arrived at, 
the outermost quills, whose growth has been held in abeyance, 
rapidly develop ; the finger decreases in length, and its claw 
disappears, while that of the thumb soon follows suit. And thus 
it comes about that the hand, in the nestling, is relatively much 
longer than in the adult. But in its mid-period it may be taken to 
represent the adult stage of the wing of the ancient Archseopteryx. 
This bird could have been but a poor flier, and probably during 
the time it was moulting its quills it was absolutely flightless. 



119 



so that it needed a permanent finger-tip, and claw, beyond the 
margin of its wing-surface. 

This matter of " moulting," by the way, needs, at least, 
passing comment. All birds renew their plumage at least once : 
the body plumage often twice in the year. The old feathers fall 
out, and their places are taken by new ones. But their growth is 
slow. In geese and ducks, and some other birds, the wing-quills 
are moulted all at once, so that flight, for a week or two, is 
impossible. But they can escape from their enemies while thus 
at a disadvantage, by taking to the water. In all other birds 
the quills are moulted, and renewed, in pairs : so that at no time 
are they left flightless. 

But this by the way. Let us revert, for a moment, to the 
hoatzin's wing. The appearance of the outermost quills of the 
hand, it will be remembered, is delayed till the inner feathers 
have grown long enough to " flutter," at least, for a short 
distance, then the growth of the complete series proceeds apace. 
This has been called an " Adaptation " to enable these youngsters, 
active from the moment they leave the egg, to move about in 
comparative safety. But it is more than this. It is a survival 
of an ancient order of things which takes us back to the first 
known birds. 

This is certainly a very remarkable feature, but it gains an 
added interest from the fact that it has a parallel in the history of 



120 



the development of the wing in the game-hirds. If you look 
carefully at the downy chicks of the pheasant, or even at barn- 
door fowls, you will remark that the wing-quills develop with 
surprising rapidity : so that they have feathered wings while the 
rest of the body is still down-covered. This enables them the 
more easily to escape prowling foxes and other enemies. In 
young ducks exactly the opposite condition obtains, the body is 
fully feathered long before the feathers of the wings appear. 
And this because they do not need to fly when danger threatens, 
but take to the water instead. But to return to the chicks of the 
pheasant. The wing of the chick develops at a very rapid rate. 
Within a few hours after hatching, the first traces of the coming 
flight feathers can be seen, and presently a large wing is cover- 
ing each side of the tiny body. At this stage many often 
die. The wings, which can then be examined at leisure, reveal 
an extremely interesting condition. For they repeat the features 
which obtain in the wing of the nestling hoatzin : inasmuch as 
the outermost quills are also, as yet, non-existent ; and there is 
a free finger-tip. But it is not nearly so long as in the hoatzin, 
and there is no terminal claw. Surely, from this, we may infer 
that the delayed development of the outer quills is a survival of 
a time when the ancestors of the pheasant were aboreal, and 
hatched their young in trees. Otherwise all the wing-quills 
should develop at the same time, and at the same rate. Here, 



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then, is another instance of what can be learned of the past history 
of a bird by a careful scrutiny of the nestling. Sometimes we shall 
find our evidence in the wing, sometimes in some other organ 
The sequence of plumage affords abundant evidence of this. But 
that is another story. 

So much for the " intensive " study of the wing. A brief 
reference must now be made to the constantly repeated state- 
ment that nestling birds are " taught " to fly by their parents. 
There is no evidence whatever to support this belief : and much 
that goes to show its improbability. 

Failing more suitable sites, sand-martins will often elect to 
build their nests in the crevices of the masonry of bridges. 

From the mouth of this substitute for a burrow is often a 
sheer drop of many feet to the stream below. When the nestlings, 
fully fledged, leave their nursery for the first time they must 
either " fly " from the moment they take the first plunge from the 
masonry, or die. Failing to make the appropriate movements 
of the wings nothing can save them from a watery grave. There 
can be no " teaching " to fly. Indeed, death no less certainly 
awaits every house-martin when it plunges into space from the 
edge of the nest. The appropriate wing-movements, necessary 
to produce flight, in short, are " instinctive." Those with 
defective instincts are forthwith killed by falHng to the ground. 
They leave no offspring to inherit their defects. 



122 



Perhaps the most convincing evidence of all as to the 
" instinctive " nature of flight, in nestling birds, is furnished by 
the mound-birds, of the Malay Region and Eastern Australia. 

These extraordinary birds lay their eggs in heaps of decay- 
ing vegetable-matter, or in the soil near hot springs ; and there 
leave them to their fate. They lay very large eggs, it is to be 
noticed, so large that the growing chick finds nourishment enough 
within the egg to enable it to pass the ordinary nestling stage 
while still within the shell. By the time it emerges it has both 
grown and shed its first coat of nestling-down, and has developed 
long wing-quills. Having burst its prison walls it wriggles its 
way up through the loose earth, to the light of day, ready to 
fight its way in the world unaided. Here, then, there can be no 
question of " teaching " the young to fly. 

But some birds, at least, do, indeed, receive instruction when 
on the wing. And in such cases, it will be noticed, their food 
can only be captured by dexterous movements in full flight. For 
a day or two, for example, young swallows simply practice flight, 
to exercise and strengthen their wings. They are fed by their 
parents when at rest. The next step comes when they are fed on 
the wing, taking their food as they hover on trembling pinions 
from their parents beak. In a little while the food is dropped as 
the parent passes, and the youngsters are made to catch it as it 
falls. From thence, onwards, they have to do their own hunting. 



123 



The clumsy ones must die. Eagles and hawks, in like manner, 
teach their young to capture swiftly moving prey by dropping 
food to them in mid-air. If one fails to catch it the parent swoops 
down and seizes the hard-won meal before it reaches the ground ; 
then mounting aloft with it, drops it once more, till, at last the 
required dexterity is gained. 



124 




125 



CHAPTER IX. 

Flightless Birds. 

" And first, I praise the nobler traits 
Of birds preceding Noah, 
The giant clan, whose meat was Man, 

Dinornis, Apteryx, Moa." — Cotirthope. 

The steamer duck — The owl parrot — the flightless grebe of Titicaca — The dodo 
and solitaire — The ostrich tribe — The penguin's wings. 

THE poet who penned the above lines thought n^ore of rhymes 
than of reasons — as Poets so often do. What were their 
" nobler traits " ? He omits to mention them. None of them were 
ever carnivorous : and the Apteryx could by no stretch of the 
imagination be called a " giant." The one outstanding feature 
which does distinguish these birds he fails entirely to appreciate 
— and this is their flightless condition. 

A flightless bird is an anomaly. Yet there are some who 
profess to believe that this state affords us an insight into the 
earlv stages of the Evolution of the wing. As a matter of fact 
it demonstrates the exact opposite — its degeneration. 

How is it that birds ever came to such a pass ? A study of 
living flightless birds, and birds that are well on the way to this 
condition, will afford us a ready answer. 



127 



Whenever we find birds living, so to speak, lives of languorous 
ease — where there are no enemies to be evaded, where there is an 
abundance of food to be picked up on the ground all the vear 
round, and the climate is kindly, there flight is no longer practised. 
Year by year, generation after generation passes by, and no use 
whatever is made of the wings. In all such cases these once most 
vital organs dwindle away, and finally vanish. We can trace 
every step in this process of decay. 

We may begin with the " steamer-duck " of the Falklands. 
In this species, after the first moult, the power of flight is lost for 
ever. Among living birds only a few species, apart from the 
ostrich-tribe, are in this dolorous case. The owl-parrot, or kakapo, 
of New Zealand, is one of these. A grebe found only on Lake 
Titacaca, perched high up a mountain-side is another. In both 
these birds the keel of the sternum is represented by the merest 
vestige, the breast-bone being reduced to the condition found in 
the ostrich-tribe. 

The two giant pigeons, the dodo, and its cousin the solitaire, 
afford instances where the loss of flight has been followed by 
extinction ; owing to the invasion of their haunts, through the 
agency of man, by pigs and other domesticated animals, which 
destroyed their eggs and young. 

The ostrich-tribe is peculiarly interesting : owing to the fact that 
their wings present a really wonderful series of degenerating stages. 



128 



The wings of all differ conspicuously from those of other birds 
in the great length and looseness of the texture of the feathers. 
Those of the African ostrich are the largest of all ; but they are 
quite useless for the purpose of flight, though they are used as 
aids in running. In the South American ostrich, or rhea, they are 
also large, but again useless for flight, for the " quill-feathers " 
are very weak, and have no " web," such as one finds in the quills 
of flying birds. And besides, the muscles of the wing have 
degenerated, the breast-muscles having become reduced to 
mere vestiges. 

In both the African and South American ostriches, the 
skeleton of the wing, compared with, that, say, of a swan, would 
seem, to the inexpert, to be quite normal. But with the cassowary, 
the emu, or the apteryx matters are very different. Here, at the 
first glance, it is apparent that the process of decay is far advanced ; 
for the bones of the hand have, as it were, shrunk up, so that 
a mere stump is all that remains. The wing of the cassowary is 
further remarkable for the fact that some of the fore-arm quills, 
or " secondaries " are represented by long, stiff quills, resembling 
spines of a porcupine ; the " vane " of the feather, which normally 
runs down each side of the shaft, has vanished altogether. What 
part they play in the bird's life history it is impossible to say. 
They certainly cannot be used as weapons, and they as certainly 
are not " ornaments." In the extinct moas the wing had still 



129 



further degenerated. In some species no more than a stump 
of the upper arm bone was left, and in others not only this, but 
even the shoulder-girdle had vanished, so that only one pair of 
limbs remained. 

Another remarkable flightless bird is the penguin. Here the 
wing has changed its form to assume that of a paddle ; super- 
ficially identical with that of the whale, or the turtle, or that of the 
extinct sea-dragon ichthyosaurus. These paddles have been 
" re-modelled," so to speak, to enable them to be used for what 
we may call flight under water. Most birds which swim under 
water use the legs for propelling the body : but the penguin uses 
his paddles instead. The paddle of the turtle has similarly evolved 
out of a fore-leg used for walking on land. The common tortoise 
may be taken as the type of this leg. In the river, and pond- 
tortoises, the stumpy foot of the land-tortoise gives place to a 
broad, webbed foot. In the turtles this webbed foot gives place 
to the paddle. 

After what has been said about the penguin it is 
instructive to turn to the wings of the auk-tribe — the guillemot, 
razorbill, and pufhn. These are very efficient for normal 
flight, but they are equally efficient for use under water. 
For these birds swim as penguins do, when submerged. Why 
then, did the penguin suffer the loss of the use of his wings 
for flight ? 



130 











^^^ 







(S^^^"-*— ^ 



Cassowary. 
Ostrich. 



Penguin. 
Kiwi. 



This question leads to another. Why did that giant razor- 
hill known as the great auk become flightless ? It would seem 
that its wings somehow failed to keep pace with the growth of 
its body, so that while they remained sufficient for flight under 
water, they became useless for flight in the air. Its failure in 
this led to its extinction, for it was unable to escape from its arch- 
enemy man. When the old-time sailors, somewhere about one 
hundred years ago, discovered its haunts in Iceland could be 
profitably invaded for the purpose of collecting feathers, and bait, 
they speedily wiped out the race ; for being flightless they were 
imable to escape the marauders once they had effected a landing. 
Unhappily there was no Bird Protection Society in those days, 
to stop this senseless slaughter. 

Here our survey of Birds on the Wing ends. It began with 
flight through the air, it ends with flight through the water. 
It is not a little surprising, surely, to find that the same wing 
can be efficiently used for both these extremes of motion. And 
still more surprising to find that, this being so, the penguin should 
have been forced, so to speak, to adopt the expedient of evolving 
a paddle ; and so forego the power of aerial locomotion. The 
skeleton of this wing, it was pointed out, differed is no essential 
from that of the typical avian wing. In some points, however, 
it has changed conspicuously. For the bones have become greatly 
flattened, and the several parts of the wing — arm, fore-arm, and 



131 



hand — can no longer be bent upon one another in the Z-shaped 
fashion of normal wings, while the " quill " or " flight- 
feathers " have been reduced to so small a size that they are 
unrecognizable. 



132 




ii^l'vS^^ 








Vultures. 



133 



Cheltenham Press Ltd. 
Cheltenham and London.